In the effective altruism community, donation matches are becoming very popular. Some matchers have gone as far as tripling or even quadrupling each dollar donated, not just doubling. But I started to wonder if the matching multiple—or even matching at all—has any impact on the money you raise. So I took a look at some of the academic literature on donation matching to see whether such matches are justified.

I find that the evidence is mixed, but we can still draw some conclusions form it. Full writeup here. I'd love to get people's thoughts on it, especially:

  • Do the process and conclusions make sense given the evidence?
  • Do you plan to change your donating/fundraising behavior based on the findings? (The research and writeup took me probably 10-15 hours, so I'm especially concerned with evaluating whether it was worth the effort!)

Thanks for reading!

(Note: I made a link instead of pasting the whole thing here because I expect I'll update the post and don't want to deal with keeping the two versions synchronized. Moderators, let me know if you'd prefer some other solution.)

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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:26 PM

My prior here is that donation matching must be relatively effective because mainstream charities use it somewhat extensively. One thing that I would emphasise is that it's a very very easy way for large donors to have (or at least fell like they have - which is very valuable for charities dealing with large donors) a "bonus" effect with their donations, it takes little resources or time and is neutral (if the matched funds are precommitted not like from a commercial sponsor). Other schemes big charities use (auctions, reinvestmentet in marketing) are a lot more complex and potentially require greater donor interaction and day to day commitment

I do think the research makes a very good point about more than 1:1matching - that seems to be a real diminishing return that should be avoided.

My prior here is that donation matching must be relatively effective because mainstream charities use it somewhat extensively.

  • Well, yes, the charities definitely have an incentive to promote donation matches, because it makes big donors feel better about their donation and hence donate more! So I'm not sure this is strong evidence that donations have an effect.

  • Also, matching campaigns are good publicity for the matcher, which explains at least some of them (corporations/mean people trying to clean up their image, etc.).

  • Also, this probably doesn't need repeating on the EA forum of all places, but mainstream charities do ineffective things all the time :)

it takes little resources or time and is neutral

I mentioned a couple low-touch alternatives to matching campaigns in the full post, like seed money and "covering overhead." There's weak evidence that these are competitive with or better than matching, although it hasn't been well-studied.

If big donors feel better and donate more, I'm not convinced that is a neutral thing. If running a matching donation drive doesn't get more donations from the matchees but does pull more money from the matchers, that may have a fairly large effect. I have certainly thought about donating more money than I otherwise would have when I heard it could be used to run a matching fundraiser. If they truly don't attract more matchee funds then I suppose it is epistemically unvirtuous to ask matchers to donate, since this implies it has an effect, but nonetheless a mechanism like this to get matchers to donate more seems not too different than the original deal (where it seems like the matchees are kind of being deluded into giving more anyways).

Not sure if I made this clear in the post, but I'm looking at matching from the perspective of a potential matching donor, not from the charity's perspective. From the perspective of a (purely rational) matching donor, you shouldn't be concerned with whether the match pulls more money from you.

Thanks for working on this.

I don't know if this is addressed in the literature, but what is your best guess for the large discrepancy between how many people say they are influenced by the match and the numbers you were finding?

A secondary thought is that I think I would expect the effect of the match to be stronger on social media due to the eye-catching effect. Though I would certainly have expected stronger effects (maybe 75%) from the studies. Almost all of the money raised on my match so far has been via the 'passive' social media exposure, rather than actively contacting people.

On a personal level, I don't like fundraising on a gut level in the first place (I put it 'necessary evil' territory). The match makes me feel less bad about it, which is probably worth something if possibly not much.

what is your best guess for the large discrepancy between how many people say they are influenced by the match and the numbers you were finding?

Couple hypotheses:

  • Personally, if information is available to me, my default assumption is that it influenced my behavior.
  • Also, if you view yourself as a rational agent, then the donation match should clearly affect your behavior, so the ego-preserving answer is "yes."
  • Also, a ~20% increase in revenue is consistent with 50% of people responding to the match, if half of those (25% of all donors) donated a small amount but would not have donated at all otherwise, and the other half went from the average to 1.5x the average.

A secondary thought is that I think I would expect the effect of the match to be stronger on social media due to the eye-catching effect.

Yeah, unfortunately I couldn't find any field experiments on social media campaigns. It seems pretty hard to study. Actually, Charity Science might be in an ideal place to look at this with their birthday/Christmas fundraisers...

I couldn't find any field experiments on social media campaigns. It seems pretty hard to study. Actually, Charity Science might be in an ideal place to look at this with their birthday/Christmas fundraisers...

We haven't directly tested matching scientifically yet, though we'd definitely like to. Our closest is in the write-up you mention "The Power of Donation Matching" where we anecdotally observed a time-ordered effect of introducing "live" donation matching (though this could be due to other factors, and isn't evidence of matching overall).

Yeah. If it turns out that the true effect is smaller than you observed in that post (which it may well not be--lots of heterogeneity), my guess would be that the spike was partly caused by some interaction with people promoting it at the same time. But again, it's super hard to tell without randomization, because the effects vary so much.

I quite like the idea of randomizing who gets matching funding on birthdays and seeing if we can pick up any differences between the two groups.

Yeah, although you'd have to be careful to account for whether people who get matching promote their campaign more, and you'd probably need a fairly large sample of fundraisers because there's a lot of variance in amount raised. It seems like a fairly tricky study to do.

(Out of curiosity, do you have a list of fundraiser totals anywhere? That would help calculate the study power.)

This is really strong, surprised I didn't see it before! This is the sort of work I'm hoping to do/coalesce in the "Increasing effective charitable giving" synthesis (but with a focus on the particular effectiveness-relevant stuff) ... and also in innovationsinfundraising.org, an earlier project.

I haven't read your full write-up, but what I see makes this my 'go-to' response on the 'matching donations' questions that comes up all the time.

I was going to make the point that @cflexman does below: introducing a "you can offer a match policy" might increase net donations if we also consider the impact of such a policy on the donations of the person induced to do the matching.

I made a link instead of pasting the whole thing here because I expect I'll update the post and don't want to deal with keeping the two versions synchronized.

I think this reduced the probability I read the piece by around 50%.

(Note: I made a link instead of pasting the whole thing here because I expect I'll update the post and don't want to deal with keeping the two versions synchronized. Moderators, let me know if you'd prefer some other solution.)

Just listen to the upvotes, Ben! I imagine people generally like having to click one less time, but don't care about it nearly as much of quality of content.