Today I had a package through the post from that fine organisation, the British Red Cross, which set a new benchmark for how charities use Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence (as outlined in his excellent book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion) to get people to give them money (US readers can order it here).

Now before we go any further, I’m not knocking charities for using psychological principles to manipulate people into donating. There are loads of charities, loads of demands on people’s money, and if they didn’t use every trick in the book to solicit contributions, they would be out of business pretty quickly.

The most often-used application of psychological principles until now has been to play on Reciprocity. The idea is that if someone gives you something, you feel obliged to give a gift in return – think of how, when you get a Christmas card at the last minute from someone who wasn’t on your list, you feel obliged to send them one, and how bad you feel if you’ve missed the deadline for the Christmas post.

Now – crucially – the gift the original donor can ask for in return for theirs does not have to be of the same value as the original gift. It would have to be worth quite a lot more before you would feel like overcoming the urge to reciprocate.

Charities rely heavily on this principle. Ever wondered why charities often include a pen in the letters they send you asking for money? It’s because their market research shows that they get significantly higher donations when they give something away.

The Red Cross have now taken this to a new level.  This package I received this morning contained not just a pen but :


25 personalised address labels
2 greetings cards with envelopes
1 sheet of wrapping paper
4 gift tags
1 bookmark

A wealth of stuff, all quite useful. But it does pose a dilemma. In the past I, like Dr Cialdini in his book, have been quite happy to use the pens that come with charity requests without actually making a donation (unless I wanted to anyway) because I knew the pen was a marketing ploy designed to maximise donations.

The bookmark, OK. I could use that if I wanted with a clear conscience. But the address labels, greeting cards, wrapping and gift tags are different, because if they are used, other people will see them and assume I have donated to the Red Cross. Using them is making a statement about myself to other people which will only be accurate if I donate.

I could just use them anyway without donating – after all, I know they are a marketing ploy. But I don’t want to. That’s only partly because the value of the unsolicited gift is rather higher than the usual pen (though probably still only costing them a few pence to produce in bulk). More importantly, Cialdini’s principle of Consistency means that  I would not be comfortable doing this. I don’t want to see myself as the kind of person who misleads others, nor as a freeloader. These things are not consistent with my self-image.

So what to do? I could just throw them away. But I don’t like to think of myself as a wasteful person either. Gaaaah! Now they’ve got me in what is called (in NLP and Ericksonian therapy) a double-bind!

The easiest way out would just be to donate, which I (and no doubt many other people) may just end up doing. In fact, I may give them something anyway, just out of admiration for the skilful way in which they’ve used Cialdini’s principles of influence.

If you would like to learn more about Cialdini’s principles of influencing, and much else besides about influence and giving presentations, you may be interested in our Advanced Influencing Skills course, which is one module on our NLP Master Practitioner training.

And if reading this has made you want to donate to the Red Cross, you can do so here (or to the American Red Cross here).


Cialdini’s principles of influence and how charities use them

3 thoughts on “Cialdini’s principles of influence and how charities use them

  • Andy you just beat me to the Cialdini post, but I found it very interesting to see a contemporary application and your reaction which made me smile. Thanks for your insight and telling me about the double bind :)

  • Just wanted to say thank you for this really kind and thoughtful piece.

    Do adding incentives work… well for example when we first tested including a pen and personalised address labels in our donor recruitment direct mail campaigns we found that these enclosures uplifted the response achieved by a massive 87% and our return on investment (based on test costs) by more than 25%, allowing us to more than break even on our donor recruitment activity for the first time in ages.

    Another example has been the addition of a bookmark, costing just 1p to produce, which uplifted response by approximately a third. We have also found that we can significantly increase response and returns for the organisation when offering a free gift to regular monthly giving responders in our direct mail campaigns.

    Adding incentives is an extremely valuable method of fundraising for us and the number of complaints received is usually extremely low. In fact on average we probably receive more requests for further incentives from supporters than we do complaints!

    Right now some of our supporters are phoning to check if we will be including a lovely but cheap Red Cross diary in their Xmas mailing. You can bet we are!

    Mark AstaritaDirector FundraisingBritish Red Cross

  • Mark also tells me that there’s a debate raging in the fundraising community about this very

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