Gad Saad, in The Consuming Instinct, has penned an interesting and deep read around the notion of biologically-driven choices. He discusses how our biology drives our consumption behaviors in ways far more important than culture or socialization alone can account.
I thought about our work as advancement professionals when Gad covered the “variety effect” and our consumption of food. Essentially, research has shown, quite conclusively, that people will eat more when more choice or variety is offered. It’s why you should stay away from buffets when you are watching your weight. The more food choices on the menu or the plate, the more we are likely to eat. He suggests this is an evolutionary choice based primarily on the reality that our species, for eons, had to worry constantly about caloric uncertainty. We didn’t know when our next meal was coming, so if we had a chance to eat now, we took it. And if we have the opportunity to eat A LOT now, we hoarded. Hence, the variety effect.
This finding makes good sense. The problem with commonsensical findings, though, is that they often get misued. We do this all the time. For instance, most take the “variety effect” out of context and apply it to all sorts of situations. But it doesn’t always work.
For instance, with all else being held constant, the “variety effect” would suggest that more choices in the number of funds available in a 401-k retirement plan would mean more participation and/or more money held back for retirement. However, studies show that each additional 10 funds made available to employees yield a 1.5 -2% less participation rate in the 401-k program. In other words, more variety equals reduced participation.
So, we know that the variety effect doesn’t work in all situations.
Often I work with clients who attempt to apply the “variety effect” to fundraising. Specifically, when putting together case statements, they think having many choices for where a gift could be made should be viewed positively by donors. They want to include any number of capital and endowment projects, special programs, scholarships, and other ongoing annual support options. The idea is, the more the merrier. You even will hear advancement leaders use language normally ascribed to food when they say, “we want to give our donors a menu of options.” More choice of where to put your gift should mean more giving by donors.
Except it doesn’t work. The thinking is faulty.
After having conducted many interviews with major donors and prospects I’m convinced that the number of gift-giving options does not positively correlate with increased giving. Instead, major donors want to see a clear connection between the institution’s strategic priorities and the campaign’s priorities. In other words, “menus” of choices are viewed – more often than not – as institutional wish lists that suggest the institution hasn’t done the heavy lifting of strategic visioning and planning. Menus suggest an attitude of, “we’ll ask for everything and see if we get something.” This perception doesn’t encourage more giving, it retards it!
Of course, in most instances you need to have some variety in your campaign gift options. Typically, you will want capital, endowment, and program priorities, as well as an inclusion of your annual fund. But it is not the variety that is the key variable in encouraging more giving. It is far more important to show donors how the particular priorities you’ve included in your campaign will strategically advance the institution. The “variety effect” may give us bigger waistlines (if we aren’t careful), but it won’t give us bigger gifts.