1) Don’t rely on cliched pictures

In a typical appeal after an earthquake we often see a family standing sadly in front of their wrecked home while they wait for help to arrive. The children tend to be very appealing, with winning smiles and big eyes. The idea is that we can’t resist these lovely children. But several studies suggest this classic image might not be quite as persuasive as you might expect. Researchers at the University of Alberta asked people to visit made-up websites which described the options for sponsoring a child whose family had been caught up in a mudslide or a tsunami. On some of the sites the children in the photos were very pretty; on others they were more average-looking.

When the description said that the child had lost both its home and parents as a result of a natural disaster, the child’s looks made no difference. But when the circumstances were not quite as tragic, the prettier children were at a disadvantage. They were judged to be more intelligent and better able to help themselves. The paper’s authors suggest that if charities are seeking to raise higher sums, they should deliberately employ less flattering lighting in photographs.

It also helps if the people in the photograph look active, rather than passive. In her research Hanna Zagefka at Royal Holloway University of London found that people were more inclined to donate after natural disasters, than after a civil war, judging the people involved to be less at fault. But they also gave more if the people appeared to be trying to help themselves, rather than passively waiting for help. So the lesson here is to use pictures of families trying to build themselves a shelter, for example, rather than sitting waiting in the hope of aid arriving.

2) Don’t always focus on individual stories

When there’s been a big disaster it can be hard to imagine exactly what’s happening on the ground, so fundraisers often tell us the story of an individual, since it helps us identify with the people involved. It seems like a good idea. We put ourselves in their shoes, realise how terrible life must be for them, and donate some money in the hope of easing their pain. But we hear so many individual stories now that such tales can start to lose their impact. What an NGO really needs is to get repeated donations from people who become committed to their organisation, rather than one-off donations inspired by one individual’s story. So sometimes charities may do better to focus on the bigger picture instead.

Psychologists in Israel recruited 300 people and told them about a rehabilitation centre for the survivors of road accidents that was facing financial cuts. The participants were divided into groups, each of which was presented with a different scenario. The first group was told the money would help an individual woman who had been in a serious car accident. The second group was told that the money would help an injured man. The other groups were told the money would help men at the centre or women at the centre, without going into detail about individuals.

On average women were prepared to donate $35 to help the specific woman who had been injured, but just $16 to help the women in general, but the men gave more to help the women in general, rather than an individual. The pattern was reversed when they were told it was men who would be helped. In other words, if the donors were similar to the people in need, they gave more when told it was for an individual than for a group. But if they weren’t similar, they gave more to help the group.

What charities need to do, if they can, is to work out whether potential donors are likely to identify with the individuals they are help. If they’re not, then appealing to more abstract notions, such as addressing issues of social justice or improving the world, could be more effective.

3) Choose your words carefully

Changing just one word can make the difference to the donations a charity collects. The psychological Nicolas Gueguen conducted an experiment in 14 bakeries in Brittany. A collecting tin was placed on each counter and on the label was information about a charity working in Togo in West Africa. The tin’s labels were identical, apart from one word. A third of the tins mentioned that ‘donating = loving’, another third said ‘donating = helping’; and the final third just mentioned the word ‘donating’.  When the psychologists counted up the money, the tins with ‘loving’ on the label contained almost twice as much as the ‘helping’ tins. The researchers suggest that the word love evokes feelings of solidarity, compassion and support, which led people to be more generous.

4) Make the donations public

We all like to present ourselves as kind and generous. In 2010, group of study participants in Japan were given a sum of money and told they could either keep all of it, or they could choose to share some of it with a charity selected from a list. The subjects were significantly more likely to donate their money if they thought that person on the screen in front of them was watching them.

This hunger to appear generous has an interesting effect on charitable giving websites. Although people can choose to remain anonymous when giving a donation on these sites, the majority of people give their names for public display. Researchers from University College London recently analysed 2,500 online donation pages. They found that the donations rose as soon as one person has been extra-generous, offering an extra £10 on average.

The effect was even more pronounced if the fundraiser was an attractive woman and the bigger-than-average donor was a man, with subsequent men offering an average of £38 extra. So if you’re trying to raise money online and you’re a woman, you could try to persuade get a male friend to make a large donation right at the start. And smile in the photo. The researchers found that smiling was the biggest factor affecting the attractiveness ratings.

5)  If you want money from a millionaire, don’t pretend there’s something in it for them

When charities make the big ask, sometimes they will try to persuade the donor that it will be good for them or their company, perhaps, if they were to donate a large amount.  But a Dutch study featuring 633 millionaires suggests that this approach could backfire.

Each millionaire took part in two games. In one game they were given 100 euros which they could keep or give away to the other player who they had been told was on a very low income.  On average they gave away 71 euros, three times as much as people usually give away in this game, but then they could afford to be generous.

But then they played a second game called the ultimatum game. Once again they were given 100 euros, but the other player knew this and could decide whether or not to accept their offer of part of the money. If they refused it, no one was allowed to keep the money.

You might be thinking that this is free money, so who’s going to turn it down? In fact half of people think it’s so unfair if they’re offered less than 20% of the money, that they refuse it, just so that the other player loses out as well. So the millionaires knew they had to pitch it just right. Surprisingly, that made them less generous. As soon as they started thinking in terms of a deal with gains and losses, some of their altruism left them and this time their average offer was 61 euros.

From these results, it would seem that charities would do better to ask a rich person for a straight donation, rather implying that there’s something in it for them – that it’s some kind of investment. If you do the latter, then there’s a risk it will put your rich donor into a financial frame of mind and the charity will get less.

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Claudia Hammond is author of Mind Over Money: The Psychology of Money and How to Use It better published by Canongate.

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