“The Science of Ask Strings” and a surprising idea to test for fundraising results

The gift string is one of the most overlooked parts of fundraising but also one of the most important. That’s the assertion in “The Science of Ask Strings,” a fascinating paper by Nick Ellinger. (You can download it here.)

Ellinger delves into the research on gift strings and talks about the mental shortcuts (heuristics) that we as humans take all the time in our everyday lives, and he shows how the science of gift strings can fit into those shortcuts to match donors’ expectations and inspire their giving.

In that spirit, I offer an idea for gift string testing, and it’s this: simply take the liberty of filling in a gift amount by adding a check mark in the gift string. Your gift string would look like this (if your gift strings are based on highest past contribution):

[✓] $HPC   [ ]$HPC x 1.5   [ ]$HPC x 2   [ ]Other: $ _________

So you’d clearly be emphasizing the $15 highest past gift, like this:

[✓] $15   [ ]$25   [ ]$40  [ ]Other : $__________

In this case, you’d be using the concept of anchoring, which Ellinger discusses. You’re anchoring to the donor’s past gift, and the result might be more consistent giving from donors at that level with the check mark. Ellinger also suggests considering Most Recent Contribution for gift strings as opposed to Highest Past Contribution, since most donors are more “anchored” to their last gift than to their biggest.

What’s more, as Ellinger notes, the first gift-ask position has greater impact on response rate and average gift than the other positions. Again, the check mark could reinforce the prominence of the first ask.

If you test a check mark, be sure to use that and not an x, like this: [x]. The x says “no,” and your donors could assume that you’re blocking them from that particular gift option for some perplexing reason.

A check mark, on the other hand, says “yes.” This will likely convey to donors that you’re simplifying the difficult task of choosing how much to give. You’re actually helping them out. And they might appreciate it — and show it by giving the gift that you suggest.

You could test this with the other amounts in the string, of course, to see how donors might react, like this:

[ ]$15    [✓] $25    [ ]$40   [ ]Other : $__________

[ ]$15    [ ] $25    [✓ ]$40   [ ]Other : $__________

Each of these options — with the check mark in the first, second, or third position — would likely produce very difference test results.

A check mark in the second position, for example, might be an effective upgrade strategy.

In a donor appeal, the check mark could also work well when combined with a social-proof line on the response device like, “Many donor are giving this amount.”

A check mark might also be worth testing in acquisition to reinforce a certain giving amount or to try to upgrade donors, based on past acquisition results.

If you’re really into testing and wiling to experiment, you could try it with the open-ask option in a donor appeal, like this:

[ ]$15    [ ] $25    []$40   [✓]Other : $__________

Gift string testing is an ongoing process for a lot of fundraisers. If you have the chance to test the check mark, it’d be great if you could share the results.


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One Response to “The Science of Ask Strings” and a surprising idea to test for fundraising results

  1. nickellingergmailcom says:

    Thanks for talking about the paper! The idea of pre-checking a box fits very much in with the idea of defaults. While I haven’t seen that one before, you will see amounts circled or arrows as a way of setting the bar where you want the bar. So it would be worth a test.

    As for having the “other” amount pre-checked, I’m thinking you may be best served there to try a no-ask-string blank where the donor simply enters an amount — some folks have found success with that online.

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