Making someone a ‘tipping point’ boosts donations

The idea that a small action can have a large effect — that it becomes a so-called tipping point — has been used to explain phenomena ranging from bank runs and labor strikes to riots and revolutions. New research explores its potential in another arena: fundraising. Across five studies, people who were told their response would push some aggregate behavior over a desired social threshold (“We are at 74% participation, and your action will get us to our target of 75%”) were far more likely than others to act.

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In one of the studies, 331 people were informed of a crowdfunding project to feed hungry children. Some participants were told that one more donor was needed to reach the organization’s goal; a subset was also told that reaching the goal would trigger matching donations for all the contributions thus far. Members of both groups were much likelier to donate than were members of the control group. Follow-up questions showed that being a potential tipping point sparked feelings of responsibility and guilt: People didn’t want to let their fellow donors down. This did more to drive donations than did feelings of obligation to the hungry children themselves.

These findings have implications for anyone using a crowdfunding model, the researchers say, and organizations can maximize their impact by breaking down a large goal into a series of small ones to create multiple tipping points. “Social threshold incentives can be used to increase participation across different domains such as donating to charity, facilitating increased physical activity, and promoting good nutrition,” the researchers write. “[They] offer a novel means of inducing guilt-but this guilt is directed toward other consumers, leading people to engage in behaviors that benefit those others.”


“On Being the Tipping Point: Social Threshold Incentives Motivate Behavior,” by Lalin Anik and Michael I. Norton (Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, forthcoming)