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17 April 2020

Behavioural science explains why Tom Moore is the perfect fundraiser for our times

Michael Sanders

MICHAEL SANDERS: He has provided an important focal point for people's generosity


Captain Tom Moore, a 99-year-old World War Two veteran raising money for the NHS by walking around his garden with the aid of a walking frame, has become the most successful individual fundraiser in the history of the donation platform JustGiving. At the time of writing, he’s raised almost £12 million. 


These are obviously unusual circumstances, but what does research in behavioural science – the coming together of behavioural economics and psychology – tell us about why people make donations to charity? Can it shed a light on why Captain Moore’s campaign might have been so successful?


First, let’s start with the obvious. Disasters – like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – capture the imagination of potential donors in a way that less striking events don’t. Research has shown that a natural-disaster campaign attracts more donations than other types of campaign, but, thankfully, these seem to be new donations – they don’t come at the expense of donations to other charities.


The coronavirus pandemic is perhaps the largest natural disaster we’re likely to see in our lifetimes, but, unlike the previous disasters studied, doesn’t have the same focal point for donations, meaning that this outpouring of generosity is looking for a home.


Second, no matter what we might think, human beings want to follow the herd. So when we see that many thousands of other people are making a donation to a particular cause, we’re more likely to do so ourselves – both because we get a signal that this is a “good” cause by seeing that others are already contributing, and because we experience a certain amount of FOMO by not being in the club.


The amounts donated by others, and the way they’ve donated, also strikes a chord. We did research looking at donations to people running in the London Marathon, and found that when people could see that the person before them had donated anonymously, they donated a bit more themselves. Sarah Smith at the University of Bristol uncovered a similar effect from seeing that the last donation was especially large.


There are of course also effects of Captain Moore himself. Our research shows that people are surprisingly unresponsive to campaigns fronted by celebrities, but are more likely to donate when they’re asked by someone they know, or who they can relate to more strongly – as an elderly veteran, Captain Moore is sympathetic and inspiring, but not intimidating.


Because of the global nature of the pandemic, Captain Moore is both the fundraiser and the potential beneficiary – as an older gentleman, he is of course more susceptible to the effects of coronavirus were he to contract it. Deborah Small from the Wharton School and her colleagues have looked extensively at the effect of a single, identifiable beneficiary of donations, and found that they are much more compelling than the daily figures of deaths and infections.


And a study we ran last week showed that people related more to stories of elderly people being affected by the coronavirus, suggesting that the public relate more to older people, and feel more compelled to act in support of them, than they do for either doctors or younger immuno-suppressed people.


Captain Moore’s fundraising efforts are a mammoth achievement – and look set only to grow. Sitting at the confluence of what we know about donations and human psychology, he represents perhaps the perfect fundraiser for our times.


Dr Michael Sanders is a Reader in Public Policy at the Policy Institute, King’s College London. He is also Chief Executive of What Works for Children’s Social Care, and Academic Lead for the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes.

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