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Nov 11, 2021 2021-11 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

Engaging donors in creative acts can boost charitable fundraising

Charitable fundraising remains a major challenge for nonprofit organizations, with many charities unable to secure and sustain the funding needed to deliver their services. Marketers, in turn, are constantly seeking new and more effective ways to solicit donations, including through nontraditional approaches and fundraising events – ice-cream socials, silent auctions, trivia nights and the like – to engage potential donors.

New research co-written by Gies College of Business professor Ravi Mehta shows that engaging potential donors in creative activities can positively influence their propensity to donate money to a charitable cause.

Participating in creative activities such as drawing or cookie decoration in support of a charitable cause induces a sense of autonomy in participants, which leads to a positive affective state, resulting in “enhanced donation behaviors” – that is, a greater likelihood of donating to the cause and a greater monetary amount donated, said Mehta, an expert in new product development and marketing

“We found that when we engage people in creative tasks – and these could be tasks either somewhat related or totally unrelated to the charitable organization’s mission – they donate more money,” said Mehta, also the Shebik Centennial Faculty Fellow at Gies.

The work was motivated by the struggle that charitable organizations often grapple with to discover effective and innovative ways to solicit new donations and engage current donors to continue with their generosity, Mehta said.

“Charities are constantly looking for new and more effective ways to engage potential donors in order to secure the resources needed to deliver their services,” he said. “This paper demonstrates that creative activities are one way for marketers to meet this challenge. We think that this research will have substantive implications for understanding how creativity can affect subsequent behavior, and how marketers and advertisers can incorporate creative activities into fundraising efforts, charity events and social media campaigns as a viable fundraising strategy.”

A pilot study with a US-registered nonprofit organization and four subsequent lab and field experiments involving artistry and design activity such as cookie decorating, T-shirt design and coloring demonstrated that having potential donors engage in a creative activity enhances the “felt autonomy” of the participant, which in turn led to increased donation behaviors.

“We further showed that the positive affect experienced by the creator leads to enhanced donation behavior due to perceptions of increased donation impact,” Mehta said. “And those subsequent positive vibes also led to a desire for mood maintenance. In an effort to maintain the resulting positive mood, people tended to donate more.”

Creative activities can be implemented through social media platforms or in person during charity events and solicitations. But the effects only emerge when the donor experiences autonomy over their creative activity, Mehta said.

“The donor has to participate in a creative activity where they have complete control over the output – not when the activity is noncreative like a 5-kilometer race, or when there’s a feeling of not having the final say over their creative act,” he said.

Importantly, the observed effects are context independent: They hold even when potential donors engage in creative activities unrelated to the focal cause of the charity or the charitable organization itself, according to the paper.

This accounts for why something like the Ice Bucket Challenge was so popular, Mehta said.

“The Ice Bucket Challenge perfectly illustrates our point: It dramatically increased donations to the ALS Association by allowing people to have total creative control over something ostensibly unrelated to the charity’s focal point or mission,” he said. “It was creative in that it allowed people to come up with their own unique way of dumping the ice bucket over their head – but what does that have to do with ALS? Nothing. And yet, it was a rousing success.

“When you give people that sense of autonomy in a creative activity, it enhances their donation behavior, irrespective of the charity itself or its mission.”

The paper was published in the Journal of Marketing.

Mehta’s co-authors are Lidan Xu, of the University of North Texas, and Darren W. Dahl, of the University of British Columbia.

Editor’s notes: To contact Ravi Mehta, call 217-265-4081; email

The paper “Leveraging creativity in charity marketing: The impact of engaging in creative activities on subsequent donation behavior” is available online.