Amanda Geiser, Joshua Lewis, and Deborah Small
The research for this article was funded by a grant from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Risk Center, and the article was originally published on the Wharton Risk Center’s blog, “Lab Notes.”
COVID-19 has disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life and captured the world’s attention. Governments, nonprofits, and individuals have directed billions of dollars to COVID-19 relief — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alone pledged more than $350 million to fight the pandemic, shifting its focus entirely to COVID-19, and many charities have set up coronavirus response funds in addition to their regular programs.
Although these efforts are commendable, the attention to the pandemic likely overshadows the urgency of other causes for which donations translate to proven impact. For instance, every year, more than 200 million people suffer from malaria and more than 400,000 people die — most of whom are children under the age of 5. For only $2, an insecticidal mosquito net can protect two children from malaria for up to three years. This is an incredibly cost-effective solution.
In our research, we asked how organizations that provide effective aid can best remain relevant in donors’ minds, amidst a crisis that has consumed the media and donors’ limited attention.
We partnered with The Life You Can Save and conducted our own fundraising campaign in which we tested six different messages to solicit donations to Against Malaria Foundation, an organization that provides the nets mentioned above to families in regions susceptible to malaria. We recruited an online sample of nearly 3,000 participants, randomly assigned them to read one of the six messages, and then provided them with a $1 bonus payment that they could choose whether to donate to Against Malaria Foundation.
Each message started with the following information: “Malaria is a life-threatening but preventable infectious disease that is spread by mosquitoes. Against Malaria Foundation works to prevent malaria by distributing mosquito nets to families in poor countries to protect them from being bitten by infected mosquitoes.” For some participants in the study, the message stopped there. This gives us a “baseline” with which we can contrast how effective other messages are relative to this basic message.
Other participants saw a longer message that contained one and only one of the arguments below for donating to Against Malaria Foundation. Each argument attempted to connect the target cause (malaria) to the current pandemic.
These arguments yielded small increases in donations (between 3 and 7 percentage points) relative to the control, but none of these increases were statistically meaningful. We also varied whether or not the appeal included an image of a child in need; consistent with the literature on the identifiable victim effect, the presence of this image had a far greater effect than any of the messages.
Argument #1: Analogy
This argument drew an analogy between COVID-19 and malaria, explaining that people suffer daily from malaria just as we are now suffering from COVID-19: Coronavirus has shown just how destructive infectious diseases can be. Just as many of us now live in fear of the coronavirus and must make big sacrifices to avoid its spread, some communities must live in constant fear of deadly infectious diseases such as malaria.
Argument #2: Comparison
This argument directly compared the impact of COVID-19 (at the time of the study) with the impact of malaria, suggesting that malaria is even more deadly: Coronavirus has shown just how destructive infectious diseases can be. But despite the severity of coronavirus, existing infectious diseases that are entirely preventable (such as malaria) will together have killed many more people in the time since coronavirus originated.
Argument #3: Diversion
This argument focused on how resources are being diverted from malaria because of COVID-19: Coronavirus has shown just how destructive infectious diseases can be. But emergencies like coronavirus can divert resources from other important causes, such as preventing malaria in poor countries, and lead to an increase in malaria-related deaths.
Argument #4: Link
This argument focused on how malaria prevention efforts were linked to managing the pandemic: Coronavirus has shown just how destructive infectious diseases can be. One way to help poor countries with coronavirus is to prevent other deadly diseases like malaria so more hospital space, doctors, and nurses are free to help coronavirus victims.
The World Health Organization has used a variation of this message, pointing out that COVID-19 poses an especially large threat for the health systems of poor countries already struggling to fight malaria.
Argument #5: Cost-effectiveness
This argument focused on how donations to combat malaria were potentially more cost-effective than donations to combat COVID-19: Coronavirus has shown just how destructive infectious diseases can be, but the most cost-effective way for charities to combat it is not yet known. Malaria is another deadly infectious disease, and charities can effectively prevent it by providing bed nets at a low cost.
Organizations aligned with the effective altruism movement (an approach to charitable giving that aims to find the causes that can save or improve the greatest number of lives per dollar) have used similar messages, urging donors to sustain their donations to more cost-effective programs such as preventing malaria and curing children of parasitic worms — interventions that can save a life for as little as $3,446.
At baseline, 49% of participants donated their bonuses. Each of the other arguments increased donations. The comparison and link arguments each increased the donation rate to 52%, and the analogy argument brought it to 55%. The most effective arguments were the diversion argument and the cost-effectiveness argument, which both led 56% of participants to donate. Yet these effects were not large, and none were statistically significant.
The feature of the experiment that had a much stronger effect was the inclusion of an image in the appeal. Half of the participants saw the following image along with the donation request, while the other half of participants saw only the written message.
Participants who saw this image were nearly 10 percentage points more likely to donate — that effect was nearly twice as large as the effect of providing a topical argument for donating.
This finding is consistent with previous research on the identifiable victim effect, which highlights how a single, identified victim evokes a more powerful emotional reaction than statistical victims.
Thus, in spite of our best attempts to persuade people with topical arguments, the results were a humbling reminder that the tried-and-true technique of drawing attention to an identifiable victim is as effective as ever.
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