The Simple Nudge That Raised Median Donations by 80%

The donor note came over the transom like any other: A contributor was hoping that the minimum allowable gift could be lowered to $18 from $20.

At Daffy, a start-up that helps people create the quasi-foundations known as donor-advised funds, the team immediately grasped the significance.

The number 18 is the numerical match for the Hebrew word “chai,” which means “life.” It’s a common donation amount among Jews — $18, $180, $1,800 or even $36 and other multiples.

So Daffy lowered its minimum gift to $18 and then went further, prompting any donor giving to any Jewish charity to bump gifts up by some related amount. Within a year, median gifts had risen to $180 from $100.

That kind of boost can change the trajectory of a nonprofit over time if enough people increase their gifts. And people of any faith — or none at all — can create their own numerical prompt on any platform to encourage extra generosity.

Buddhists and Hindus sometimes give in multiples of $108, though a spokesman for Catholic Charities said it had seen no particular numerical pattern over time. He welcomed an effort to seize on one, though.

Indeed, not every faith has some kind of magic or holy number. Even within particular religions, opinions vary on whether to anchor gifts to a figure or to increase donations by a certain number. Anwar Khan, the president of Islamic Relief USA, said he had not seen a numerical pattern in donations to his organization — not even in the number 786, which some Muslims believe is lucky or holy.

Mr. Khan recalled a rush in certain circles to claim the 786 area code when it came into existence years ago, but he did not want to recommend it or any number as a philanthropic hook. Instead, he made a qualitative appeal.

“Think of a number you’re comfortable with,” he said. “Now, increase it.”

By what, though? Donor-advised funds like the ones Daffy administers — and funds that investment companies and community foundations help individuals set up — have a role to play in prompting people.

Donor-advised funds allow you to deposit money or investments like stocks and take a tax deduction for the full charitable contribution for that year. But you don’t have to redistribute any money to nonprofits that year. Instead, you can let it sit, as if it were your own private foundation; ponder your goals and do some research; and then ask the fund to make donations to various nonprofits over time.

One big behavioral (and public policy) challenge with donor-advised funds is this: How can the funds — or you, yourself — deploy nudges to prompt bigger distributions of the money more quickly? That’s where the “chai” gambit at Daffy, which stands for Donor-Advised Fund for You, came in.

There are many other possibilities. If you’re trying to make a donation to your college to replace the grants you were awarded as a student, you could add your graduation year, say $19.93, to what would have otherwise been a $100 gift. Schools could prompt something like that, and so could donor-advised funds when they see people giving to a college.

If you have children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, there’s another possibility. Daffy has a family plan that allows children to prompt their adult relatives to support a cause the children choose. Why not put the app on their iPhones or iPads so they can make suggestions and let, for example, a 12-year-old make $12 donations to 12 nonprofits each year? (Daffy doesn’t support Android devices yet.)

I wrote this column in 5783, at least on the Jewish calendar. You’re reading it in 5784, on Rosh Hashana or a few days afterward. In this new year, I resolve to add $57.84 to my contributions. Here’s hoping that you can find a figure that means something to you — and will mean even more to your favorite cause.

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