How can you nudge people to donate?

Christian Traxler and Maximilian Linek examine data from Wikipedia’s donation drive via website banners.

When the banner pops up on Wikipedia explaining that the site has no ads and asking for donations, what do you do? How successful are such requests – and would knowledge about the number of people donating induce users to follow suit? The answer is probably not, according to research conducted by Hertie School PhD researcher Maximilian Linek and Professor of Economics Christian Traxler.

For their paper, “Are Wikipedia Users Conditionally Cooperative? Evidence from Fundraising Trials,” Linek and Traxler examined data from a series of six trials run as part of Wikipedia’s online fundraising campaigns. The trials, which produced 23,000 donations totalling 442,167 euros, randomly assigned Wikipedia users to differently worded web banners, varying information about the number of people donating. Providing such “social information” is a commonly used and typically successful “nudge” to influence people’s behaviour.

The researchers found that telling users a large number of donors had contributed to Wikipedia did not induce people to donate. On the contrary, one of the trials that framed an identical number of donors as “few” instead of “many” significantly increased users’ likelihood to donate.  

“We do not find evidence that providing social information increases online donations to Wikipedia. Instead, our results indicate that such approaches might backfire,” Traxler said.

What are the reasons for this? There are several possibilities. Users who see the banner may not actually believe what they read because it doesn’t fit their expectations – for example, that lots of their friends are actually donating.  Varying social information may also be ineffective because users don’t feel a social connection with other Wikipedia users. People may also decide to donate if they feel their impact is greater – i.e., if others are not donating, so their donation may matter a lot.

Linek and Traxler note that researchers are only just beginning to understand when institutions or policymaking should avoid using such nudges: “…our findings add to a slim but growing body of evidence that challenges the notion that the provision of social information is a universally successful policy tool.”

The research was part of a larger cooperation with Wikimedia Germany and was supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.


The paper is available here.

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