The science behind why social fundraising works

on October 31, 2018

When embraced, social fundraising can be an incredibly successful way for nonprofits to engage, empower, and activate their community of supporters. Campaigns that get it right end up with an exciting mix of giving, sharing, and fundraising that increases the value to the organization beyond the sum of the campaign’s parts. Said another way, well executed social fundraising provides organizations with funding, awareness, and relationship building that ends up looking more like a movement than a campaign.

We wanted to learn a little more about why social fundraising works so well, so we looked into it. Turns out it has a lot to do with our cognitive biases, the natural systems that helps rule our decision making and thought processes.

Hi. I’m a cognitive bias.blg_cognitiveBiases_2018_1In-blog-Graphics

A cognitive bias is a mental shortcut, or rule of thumb, that helps you make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed. These ‘shortcuts’ allow us to function more efficiently and effectively so we aren’t constantly stopping to think through every possible outcome or detail of the decision. Without cognitive biases, even the simplest decisions would become complicated because of the sheer amount of information we receive every single day.

There are many different cognitive biases, over 100 actually, that shape everything from how we buy, sell, give, interact with friends, think, and even how we order at restaurants.

Take for example the status quo cognitive bias. This bias says that, if you’re like most people, you may find yourself ordering the same menu item every time you visit your favorite restaurant. Some newer items or specials might look tempting, but you’d rather avoid being potentially unhappy trying something new when you know that you’re already satisfied with your old favorite.

Cognitive biases + social fundraising

Social fundraising is most powerful when your supporters take action and share with their network. They tell the world not only why they love your cause, but also what they’re doing to play a role in your work. This can mean attending one of your events, making a donation, starting their own fundraiser, or just sharing some of your messaging or a link to your website.

Let’s take a look at 6 cognitive biases that play a role in effective social fundraising:blg_cognitiveBiases_2018_2_In-blog-GraphicsThe halo effect: Your overall impression of a person influences how you feel and think about their character.

How this relates to social fundraising: If you trust someone, and you constantly enjoy and support the things that they share, you are likely to trust them when they ask others to support a cause that is meaningful and important to them.

Biggest takeaways for your nonprofit: Encourage your supporters to share their donation, ticket purchase, and love for your cause in their own authentic voice. The halo effect says that their friends and family will automatically place your nonprofit in a higher light because of the trust factor connected with the person posting the action.blg_cognitiveBiases_2018_3_In-blog-Graphics

The availability cascade: A self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing reputation in public discourse. Or, in simpler terms, if people repeat something long enough, it will become true.

How this relates to social fundraising: The more supporters share about your cause, the more likely your brand and mission will get through to their friends and family.

Biggest takeaways for your nonprofit: Think of the availability cascade when you’re writing messaging and copy related to your cause.  Chances are your supporter will take snippets of text that you provide in order to round out the way they talk about your cause on social. Make sure that your messaging is consistent so that when you share it, and your supporters share it, it's triggering that recognition based on this cognitive bias. Also, make it easy for your supporters to start conversations about your cause with their networks by using integrated social sharing throughout their experience with your nonprofit.blg_cognitiveBiases_2018_4_In-blog-Graphics

The bandwagon effect: The tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same.

How this relates to social fundraising: Your supporters can become influencers or thought leaders on behalf of your cause within their own networks, which will make your messaging more likely to click with their collection of like-minded friends and family.

Biggest takeaways for your nonprofit: Identify the niche community that relates to your mission and seek out influencers within that group. Share with those thought leaders why your cause and their passions are a perfect match. Ask them to spread the word about your work, and the role awareness plays in your success or failure. Their network of like-minded people will identify with the influencer and trust that they are fans of your nonprofit for a reason that resonates with them, as well.blg_cognitiveBiases_2018_5_In-blog-Graphics

Analysis paralysis: Our brain’s default is to shut down when presented with too many options. Due to a lot of noise, ads, and calls to action, our brains overthink and have a hard time choosing. As a result, the action is either postponed or never happens.

How this relates to social fundraising: This is where social fundraising really helps, because when a friend or family member shares with their network that they support your cause, it cuts through the noise of random brands or unsolicited ‘advertisements’ from organizations with which they don’t have an affiliation.

Biggest takeaways for your nonprofit: Using a platform that has integrated social sharing features can make a huge difference in encouraging your supporter to share their experience with your cause. Additionally, let your supporter base know (through social posts, emails, direct correspondence, etc.) that sharing holds tremendous value in increasing awareness and furthering your mission.blg_cognitiveBiases_2018_6_In-blog-Graphics

Community Bias: Humans have an inherent need to be a part of a social community. This belonging makes us feel more comfortable and inspires us to take action to achieve our desired results.

How this relates to social fundraising: When your community gets talking it shows the bonds created between them based on their shared interest in changing the world. That is very attractive to others in their social circles.

Biggest takeaways for your nonprofit: Establish and encourage your nonprofit’s DIY peer-to-peer program. DIY fundraising allows your supporters to create their own fundraising campaign on your behalf whenever they want. More importantly, fundraisers need to communicate a lot to be successful and that will naturally pull their community into the conversation.blg_cognitiveBiases_2018_7_In-blog-GraphicsThe identifiable victim effect: The tendency for people to empathize more with a specific individual, as opposed to a large anonymous group. The story of one helps us connect with them on a personal level and want to save them.

How this relates to social fundraising: Your supporters personal connection with your cause is easier for their network to connect to, versus your broader appeal as an organization.

Biggest takeaways for your nonprofit: Encourage your supporters to share their own personal message about why they identify with and are passionate your mission. Ask them why they were drawn to your work. This is what will most effectively engage their friends and family to donate or support them.


Cognitive biases are powerful natural behavioral patterns that determine what courses of action we choose to take. And, the 6 biases above help illustrate why social fundraising is such a powerful force and motivator for nonprofits and their communities.

Did you know that CrowdRise has a social-first mentality? We strive to provide a platform that has the necessary tools and features to boost the social fundraising of our nonprofit partners and their supporters.

Gary Wohlfeill

Gary Wohlfeill is the Director of Marketing at CrowdRise. He works with partners to develop highly engaging fundraising campaigns, and leads the marketing team in developing the CrowdRise brand. Gary has been named as having the “3rd best haircut of people under 6 feet tall at CrowdRise" and hopes one day to slip to 4th.