You know non-profit giving has reached the big time when the “paper of record,” the New York Times, has one of its top economic consultants on the case. In this week’s column, Robert J. Shiller examines what motivates people to not only give, but give more. He discusses a recent paper where researchers did a little experiment to see how they could influence giving:

Prospective donors were randomly divided into a control group and an experimental group. The only difference was that those in the experimental group had the option to donate money to a specific academic college, rather than the university as a whole.

Interesting. What do suppose might have happened?

The researchers found that while there was little difference in the probability that the individuals in the two groups would make a donation, the people in the experimental group gave much larger amounts. That was true even for those who ultimately decided to donate to the general fund. Just being given the choice of active involvement, and then not taking it, increased the donation.

Well, fancy that! When people have more autonomy over their giving, when they feel a connection to a specific cause, they’re inclined to give more. Even when they end up donating to the general fund.

Shiller goes on to discuss some, other, more conceptual ideas about where we could go from there, but take a moment to consider how you, as a church leader could act on the aforementioned study’s findings.

As a church, you’re always happy to accept general donations in the offering plate. Also, assuming you’re really a church and not actually a hobo standing on a corner with a steeple-shaped box on your head, you probably also have various ministries and missions operating at any given time, all competing for funds. With so many competing priorities (but only so much time in a service), how do you make clear to your congregation that they have choices?

Simple – online giving

Yes, yes, we are in the business of online giving, but in this instance there really isn’t a more efficient way to a) make sure money goes to where it’s needed and b) capitalize on the benefits of the behavioral economics experiment discussed above. With FaithStreet online giving, you can of course set up a general giving fund, but you don’t need to stop there – set up one for every one of your ministries, if you wish. Best of all, there’s no need to waste time passing around multiple offering plates – just make an announcement, or hand out fliers.

Online giving, through simple implementation alone, has been shown to increase giving anywhere from 10-30 percent. Combine that with options that let the giver know they have some agency in the matter and, well. The sky’s the limit.

You could even afford to buy that hobo a new steeple hat.

Image credit: Doug Chayka/New York Times