Goal gradient hypothesis and the power of momentum in fundraising

It turns out that lab rats and donors have something in common – and it’s a good thing! How could donors being like rats possibly be a good thing, you ask? Well, it helps us understand the importance of some fundamental fundraising techniques. Let’s hear from Roger Dooley from the blog Neuromarketing:

…back in the 1930s, researchers made an interesting discovery: rats running a maze to reach food ran faster as they got closer to the food. This finding led to the “goal gradient hypothesis,” which states that the tendency to approach a goal increases with proximity to the goal. Simply put, the closer the goal, the more effort you expend to get there.

Dooley points out that this theory has been validated in humans in many different settings, including with frequent flyer miles, rewards-based credit cards and coffee shop punch card programs. On that last example, Columbia University researchers found that when individuals are given a rewards punch card, they will drink coffee more frequently as they approach a fully punched card.

Goal gradient hypothesis in fundraising

We see goal gradient hypothesis at play in some of the strongest fundraising techniques at our disposal, and I hope understanding the psychology behind the effect helps you do a better job at using those techniques.

  • Matching gift appeals. Matching gift appeals play well in part because they create momentum for the donor. Someone has already contributed to solve the problem – you can join with that and have even more impact!

  • Capital campaigns. A foundational principle in capital campaigns is that the final, public phase of the campaign doesn’t start until at least 80 percent of the funding is secured. This way, the messaging to the broader public takes on a very momentum-building perspective – help us finish this campaign!

  • Avoiding paralyzing statistics. We’ve talked before about the detriments of painting a picture of an issue that seems virtually unsolvable. Some might think that the sheer size of a crisis motivates people to action, but more often than not it paralyzes. What can my gift really do to solve this problem? It’s important to focus on the next win we can have, rather than the entire issue that will take years to tackle.

  • Encouraging giving as a community act. One way we can help people feel a sense that they are close to the goal is to talk about how they will be joining with others in the effort.

What other examples come to mind of Goal Gradient Hypothesis in action for you?