Social Media and Mobile Fundraising for Haiti: A Behavioral Economics Perspective
March 2, 2010 § 3 Comments
Accompanying Prezi can be viewed here.
Much has been written about the success of mobile giving following the devastating earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010. The Red Cross has received considerable praise for its partnership with mGive. To date, mGive has processed over $37 million in donations to Haiti according to the Denver-based nonprofit’s blog. This far surpasses previous mobile fundraising efforts following natural disasters, including the $190,000 the Red Cross raised through mobile giving after Hurricane Ike in 2008.
The convenience of donating through mGive was an obvious boon to the Red Cross fundraising effort: A donor simply texts the word “Haiti” in a cellphone text message to the number 90999, which automatically adds a $10 pledge to their phone bill. As mGive’s website claims, donations can be completed within 10 seconds. And beyond convenience, mGive effectively reframed and decoupled the transaction. Since the loss of $10 would be realized at a later date and was bundled with the mobile phone bill (a service that most people consider an indispensable utility), the transaction didn’t count as a charity withdrawal in one’s schema of mental accounts.
But why did mobile giving catch on this time around?
With the loss of over 230,000 lives, the human toll resulting from the Haitian earthquake ranks it the deadliest natural disaster of the past century occurring in the Western Hemisphere. Undoubtedly, this magnitude of human loss and suffering helped spur donations. Couple this sobering reality with endorsements from the White House and various celebrities and you can easily see why the Red Cross partnership with mGive was deemed a legitimate and worthwhile cause.
As I’ve illustrated in the Prezi above, social networking sites also fueled the success of the Red Cross campaign. Within hours of the earthquake, the Red Cross tweeted: You can text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to Red Cross relief efforts in #haiti.”
This text meme quickly took root in social networks. According to web analytics firm Sysomos:
There were 2.3 million tweets about “Haiti” or the “Red Cross” from Jan. 12 to Jan. 14, and nearly 150,000 tweets that included “Haiti” and “Red Cross.” Of the 2.3 million tweets, 59% were retweets. There were also 189,024 tweets that included “90999.”
This is clearly an unprecedented case of the effects of social media on fundraising. But in addition to rapidly getting the word out, I would argue that social media also played a significant role in fueling what behavioral economists call “image motivation.” Image motivation refers to an individual’s tendency to be motivated by how others perceive them. Applied to altruism, this phenomenon explains the social currency of “looking good by doing good.”
Social Media, Image Motivation, and Giving
In their 2007 paper titled, “Doing Good or Doing Well? Image Motivation and Monetary Incentives in Behaving Prosocially,” Dan Ariely, Anat Bracha, and Stephan Meier examine the effects of image motivation and extrinsic rewards on giving. They find that the desire for social approval means that:
Conditional on prosocial activity yielding a positive image, people will act more generously and prosocially in public than in private settings.
We can assume that in the case of the Red Cross mobile giving campaign, image motivation was perpetuated through social media channels like Facebook and Twitter. Tweets and status updates that spread the word about texting “HAITI to 90999” more than served the purpose of notifying others; these short strings of text provided a means of image motivation. As word of the cause quickly disseminated from social media influencers to the masses, donating to the cause became an established norm within social networks. Social reputation was now at stake.
Ariely, Bracha, and Meier demonstrate that in addition to improving participation, image motivation in social settings also increases the amount people donate. They conducted an experiment that simulated making a donation to the American Red Cross through a combination of keystrokes in a software program. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: (1) A private group, where the amount donated was only known by the participant and (2) A public group, where the participant had to publicly reveal to other participants what they donated. Participants in the public group donated significantly more to the Red Cross: the average number of clicks, at 900, was nearly double the average of 517 clicks for participants assigned to the private group. (Ariely, Bracha, and Meier then go on to investigate the interplay between extrinsic rewards and image motivation.)
What might this teach us about future fundraising efforts?
In their 2004 paper, “Public goods experiments without confidentiality: a glimpse into fund-raising,” James Andreoni and Ragan Petrie examine the group dynamics of image motivation in fundraising. Andreoni and Petrie found that:
Identity and information can matter. Knowing only the distribution of contributions, but not the identity of the givers, has no discernible effect. Knowing only the identity but not the individual contributions has a modest effect of increasing donations. However, knowing both who is in your group and what each is choosing [to donate] can significantly increase giving . . . the combination of information and identification tends to increase contributions. Information and identification together result in 59 percent more giving to the public good over the baseline of the typical public goods experiment.
Along with Ariely, Bracha, and Meier’s findings above, this implies that fundraising efforts that make use of social media benefit from making it easy for donors to share the amount they contributed with their social network friends and followers. In the case of the Red Cross campaign for Haiti, $10 provided an agreeable anchor point that allowed people to give within their means — skip Starbucks for two days and you’ve made up the loss. Without this anchor point, the mGive transaction would have lacked a social norm within social networks and may not have been passed along to the degree it was. I wonder what this might have looked like had people been able to broadcast how much they gave above and beyond the $10 anchor point, or alternatively, how many people they shared news of the cause with.
I think what we can learn from this is that it is incumbent on fundraisers to understand the principles of image motivation within social networks when organizing efforts that utilize social media. Further, as mobile fundraising continues to gain momentum, fundraisers should look to smartphone apps like Causeworld and The Extroardinaries for a glimpse as to where mobile-social giving is headed. These apps feature novel approaches toward signaling image motivation in social networks while on the go.
Tagged: altruism, apps, behavioral economics, Behavioral Finance, dan ariely, decoupling, design planning, design strategy, earthquake, Facebook, haiti, image motivation, joe gray, mental accounting, mGive, mobile giving, natural disasters, red cross, Social Media, social responsibility, Twitter