Using Subconscious Reasoning to Improve Your Ask String

Apr 18, 2019

Have you ever come up with an amazing appeal letter, but didn’t get the results you were expecting? Your ask string might be to blame! If you spend all that time reaching out in a way that feels personal and tell a great story about your organization and its goals, you should be rewarded for your hard work! Yet many nonprofits are not aware of the science behind making the ask and how to use it to improve your ask string.

There’s no doubt that there is a science to effective asks. A lot of that plays off concepts of human psychology. In fact, much of the decision-making progress is a subconscious effort. Understanding how the mind works and designing your asks to benefit from it is an important part of your appeals.

Data and analytics are critical for determining the exact gift values for each donor and each appeal. But that is a whole other animal. We will discuss those strategies in a future blog post. But it is important to first understand how to approach your asks from a psychological perspective. Having the foundation of your asks rooted in psychology will allow you to test and gather the data you need to really make the most out of your appeals.

Keep it Simple

Whether you realized it or not, you’ve probably been a victim of choice overload. When it comes to spur of the moment decisions, less is often more.

Have you ever been walking in the city, and felt a little hungry after lunch? You might impulsively decide to stop at the corner store and grab a candy bar to get you through the next hour or two. But as you browse the seemingly endless variety of choices, you decide maybe you weren’t as hungry as you thought. It’s easier NOT to make a decision and just go about your day.

The truth is, you are still just as hungry. But you were faced with too many options, which made coming to a decision more trouble than it was worth. Your subconscious mind took over and rationalized it was easier to make no decision at all. It’s a phenomenon known as over choice.

An abundance of options for something that should be simple causes us to become overwhelmed. If we can’t quickly determine the best choice, we determine it is better to make no choice at all! This is a cognitive process that we are all susceptible to. But it is hard to realize when it is happening. That moment of hesitation while looking at our options give the brain enough time to rationalize.

In our candy bar example, we decided that we were not that hungry. In fundraising, this gives donors time to think, “Maybe I should hold off, I do have to pay my cable bill soon,” or “The amount I want to give is the lowest choice on here, they will be fine without my gift.”

And the last thing any fundraiser wants to do is give a donor a reason to hesitate at the last minute! We recommend using no more than three giving options on an ask to avoid choice overload. If you want to include more options, leave a space for donors to write in their own gift amount.

The Middle Ground

So now you’ve limited your asks to three predetermined options. But let’s be honest, you know that one of those dollar amounts is the best fit for a given donor and your organization. Offering only three options also allows your appeals to tap into another powerful aspect of our subconscious decision-making process, the center stage effect. Humans have a tendency to pay the most attention to what’s in the middle. Use it to guide your donors to that ideal gift.

Our eyes are drawn to the middle option first. But studies show, the longer we look at something, the more we like it. The reverse is true as well. The more we like something, the more we will look. This is known as a feedback loop, a quirk in the human brain that fundraisers can use to their advantage. So, make sure your ideal ask is in the middle, and draw attention to it any way you can.

Consider using colored buttons for each gift amount to improve your ask string for online donation pages. Make your middle choice a brighter shade than the other two. We see faster than our brains can comprehend. So, draw donors’ eyes where you want them to go, and their brain and wallet will follow.

The middle option is also supported by the Goldilocks principle. We all know how the children’s story goes. Goldilocks always found the papa bear’s things too big, while the baby bear’s was too small and mama bear’s was just right. Supporting your ideal ask with an option that seems too high, and one that seems too small helps the donor determine the middle gift amount is just right!

Link Dollars to Something Real

There are many other ways to subconsciously communicate what you want donors to do. You just have to convince them they know what they want to do, without saying it outright.

Successfully demonstrating the impact each donor’s gift will have on your goals is one way to improve your ask string. If you are running a campaign for a specific program or initiative, you can communicate exactly how specific gift amounts further the cause. Connect specific dollar amounts to something tangible. Let’s use a nonprofit that helps provide educational opportunities to underserved students as an example. Their asks for a back to school initiative might include:

– $50 can provide notebooks and pencils for an entire class

– $100 dollars can buy five backpacks for students who need them.

– $150 could buy new dry erase boards for three classrooms

However, we want to emphasize that this approach is best suited for specific projects. We are firm believers in developing like-minded donors to support your mission, not just one project. You want donors to support a cause that is important to them, not check off items on a shopping list. The notebooks, backpacks, and dry erase boards in our example are just some of the ways the organization furthers its mission of helping underserved students get a good education. If you use this approach, make sure you connect the dots with your donors on how their gift advances your mission as well.

Not a Simple Science

Strategies rooted in psychology are a great way to start thinking differently about your asks. The tips we provided in this post can serve as a great foundation as you continue to improve your ask strings. Understanding the relationship between the human mind and your ask can have an immediate impact on your fundraising revenue.

We always like to provide actionable advice that you can implement right away to improve your fundraising. And that was the main goal of this post. But knowing how to work off the human brain is just the beginning. Each of these strategies can be far more effective if you back them with a data-driven approach that is relevant to your organization.

So, as you apply these strategies, track your results and take note of any trends you notice. It will be crucial for our next post on the science of ask strings. Keep your eyes peeled for a dive deep into analytical strategies that will enhance you appeals in the coming weeks. Data-geeks rejoice!

Like what you see? Stay in touch!

FREE eBook: The building blocks of engaging fundraising communications.
FREE eBook: Ask strings and the science of securing support..