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How can fundraisers increase donations to help COVID-19 victims?

Donations to help COVID-19 victims - IE Business School

Three studies examine holistic thinking vs analytical thinking on willingness to donate.

A critical question for NGOs is how to increase fundraising via donations. During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen a large number of cases where hospitals, international NGOs, and even entire countries have sought help from individuals to help ease the serious effects of the pandemic both on the health and economic domains.

Past research has shown that individuals are more likely to donate when they feel that their donation will make a difference. In our paper Every penny counts: The effect of holistic-analytic thinking style on donation decisions in the times of Covid-19, we further the knowledge in this area by examining how an individual difference variable, namely thinking style, affects the perception that a small donation can make a difference in a global scale disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic and, consequently, increases the intentions to donate.


Dilney Gonçalves, IE Business School Marketing Professor, with IE Business School PhD candidate Xiaozhou Zhou, Blanca Requero (Universidad Villanueva), and IE University Psychology Professor David Santos.


Holistic, versus analytic thinking styles, has traditionally been used to contrast the thinking styles across different cultures like East Asian versus North American. However, it can also describe differences among individuals within a country. Holistic thinkers tend to see events and objects as interconnected and assign causal relationships among them and within their context. Analytic thinkers tend to see events and objects in isolation without assigning relationships among them and in isolation from the context.

We hypothesized that holistic thinkers, because they see events as more interconnected, would be more likely to perceive that their individual donation could make a difference even in a global scale event like the COVID-19 pandemic. We also hypothesized that, because they feel like they can make a difference; holistic thinkers would be more likely to actually make donations towards COVID-19 related causes.

We tested our hypotheses in three different experiments. In the first study, we asked 325 participants in the United States how likely they were to donate to the CDC Foundation (an actual non-profit organization that was raising money to fight the COVID-19) and we found a positive correlation between holistic thinking style and intention to donate. The higher a person scored on holistic thinking, the more they indicated they would donate.

In the second study, 266 participants were offered a monetary incentive to take the survey. At the end, we asked them if they were willing to donate that money to Feeding America, an NGO that was raising money to fight the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on poor families. In this study, there was an actual monetary donation involved. In addition, we also asked participants the extent to which they believed that their donation made a difference for the recipients. Again, the results were consistent with our hypotheses: people who scored higher on the holistic thinking scale had a greater perception that their individual contribution made a difference and, in consequence, donated larger amounts of money.

To show that our theory applies to contexts that are not so salient like the COVID-19 pandemic, we conducted a third study, in which participants were asked to donate to a hunger relief cause. This study confirmed that our theory applies to this context.

Fundraisers can use this knowledge to design their campaigns such that they induce potential donors to think in a more holistic way and make them see that every penny counts.