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Thinking Fast and Slow

MFG Archive

Does more data equal more funding?


To most of us, when we think better data, we think better quality programs supported with better quality fundraising. But is this ubiquitous? We take a look back to a fascinating article in BloombergView, written by Cass R. Sunstein, which draws on evidence to the contrary.

The premise of Sunstein’s article is that  “large donors respond positively to statistical evidence of effectiveness – but small donors respond negatively.” Based on data from a new Yale University study, he puts this down to the difference in thinking fast, and thinking slow.

According to Sunstein, “fast thinking is intuitive and often emotional. When people are thinking fast, visual images are important.” For small donors, who tend to give based on emotions and the desire to feel good about one’s actions, they think fast when it comes to donations. By contrast, Sunstein explains that “slow thinking is more deliberate. When people are thinking slowly, numbers count.”

To highlight these two thinking methodologies, he uses the data presented by Freedom From Hunger’s direct email campaign, in which they sent two very similar emails, with one distinct difference: better data. In the first email, a case study of a women and her business helped by the generosity of donors. This became the benchmark.

In the second email, they add in significant data, including stats around business performance, and even highlight the quality of the evaluation process itself. The result is large donors (in this case $100 and over) were 2.2% more likely to donate, while the actual amount per donation rose on average $12.98. A sizeable amount when accumulated over a large campaign. Sunstein postulates that this is because these donors are thinking slowly – with less emotion and more value on data and program quality.

The big contrast is the 1.4% decrease in the likelihood of small donors giving, and a reduction in the size of their gifts by 81 cents. Small donors are frankly put off by too much information. Sunstein makes it clear that “these evaluations are important, but if a charity wants to attract small donors, it might be a mistake to highlight them.”

Sunstein concludes that “statistical information might have a major impact on some people, but to others, it might be irrelevant – or even counterproductive.”


Many thanks to BloombergView and Cass R. Sunstein for bringing to light the kind of data that is necessary to get the most out of fundraising campaigns. Be sure to follow both of them for further updates and philanthropic insights.