I grew up overseas in a country where scarcity was the norm for many people. The effects of that on my psyche are still with me today. When anything becomes scarce, I start to panic. My wife routinely smiles knowingly when I buy extra supplies of everything from paper towels to vitamins. I even get anxious about hotel rooms and seats on airplanes “running out” before I can book them. Or if there is a sale and “supplies are limited” (a favorite “scarcity” ploy of retailers), it causes me to move quickly. If there is one cookie left, three people will want it.
Scarcity. It is a very powerful motivator. And many people are embarrassed to admit that it plays in their lives. Scarcity is Principle #4 in this series on the use of persuasion and influence in major gift fundraising. (To read about the other principles, see the list at the end of this post.)
Dr. Robert Cialdini* says that “in fundamental economic theory, scarcity relates to supply and demand. Basically, the less there is of something, the more valuable it is. The more rare and uncommon a thing, the more people want it. Familiar examples are frenzies over the latest holiday toy, or urban campers waiting overnight to pounce on the latest iPhone. The tendency to be more sensitive to possible losses than to possible gains is one of the best-supported findings in social science.”
Brady Josephson frames this principle by stating that “people are more motivated to give to avoid a sense of loss or losing out as opposed to giving for positive outcomes. Just by changing the focus from helping to not helping, from ‘with your support we can…’ to ‘without your support we can’t…’ for example, you might be able to increase response.”
The key thought for fundraising is avoiding consequences. When creating offers, Jeff and I often counsel our clients to follow this formula:

  1. State the problem.
  2. Say what you are going to do and when.
  3. State the consequences of not doing it.
  4. State how much it will cost.
  5. Ask for the gift.

It’s that third point that we are talking about here. What will be lost if we do nothing? What will the donor lose by not taking an action? What regret will you have?
Now, be careful here. We should avoid manipulation, and this is where you can get close to manipulating – so you need to watch out. Here is how I think about this. First, you have identified the donor’s passion and interest. Then you have stated a problem you intend to solve with the donor’s involvement, a problem that ALSO matches the donor’s passion and interest.
(Stop on this point. The problem matches the donor’s passion and interest. This is important, so file this point away and hold it tightly.)
Then you say what you are going to do and when, and you follow that by stating what will be lost – what the consequences are – of NOT taking action on this problem. This is where the principle of scarcity kicks in. The donor thinks about the fact that she genuinely cares about this situation – remember, it IS her passion and interest. And she now knows that if she does not help, something will be lost. An opportunity to do something good – to avoid a loss – will pass.
There are many times I have experienced this dynamic in my life. Where I know I should have taken an action but I didn’t. And now I look back and regret it.
This is one of the most strategic ways the principle of scarcity works in major gift fundraising. Other ways could be things like “there are only a few seats left at the event” or “we have two spaces left on the (vision) trip,” etc. You get the point.
But here’s the key application with donors. Every time you create an offer that matches your donor’s passion and interest, and you have clearly spelled out what you are going to do about the problem or situation you have presented – after that, be sure you state the consequences of not acting. State what will be lost if “we don’t do something about this.”
This is a very important step in presenting a case for your donor to support.

* The core concepts for this series come from the writings of Dr. Robert Cialdini, who has written extensively about the ethical use of influence, and from my colleague Brady Josephson who has taken Dr. Cialdini’s work to a new level when he took his 6 principles of influence and reframed them for fundraising.

Series details: The Six Principles so far…

  1. Reciprocation
  2. Liking
  3. Commitment & Consistency
  4. Scarcity (this post)