Ideas42: Using Behavioral Science to Influence Giving Patterns

Established in 2008 as a research project at Harvard University, Ideas42 has grown into an 80 person nonprofit that uses behavioral science to address topics in criminal justice, development, education, health, and philanthropy. The organization draws upon research in economics, neuroscience, and psychology in order to nudge people toward choices that benefit themselves and society at large. In 2016, Ideas42 brought in $12.5 million for their efforts, largely from foundations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, MetLife Foundation, William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Laura & John Arnold Foundation.

Through their work, Ideas42 seeks to explain why people tend to behave irrationally and apply those conclusions toward advancing social wellbeing. As co-executive director Piyush Tantia explains, “If you design anything — whether it be a social program, a piece of technology, an email campaign — it’s going to influence people’s behavior. In our experience, most of the time, people don’t really think about that human interaction. They’re assuming that people will be rational.” The Cleveland Housing Network, for example, noticed that many of their tenants would habitually wait until the 10th of the month to pay their rent, sometimes incurring late fees when their payments were delayed. In a pilot project funded by the Citi Foundation, Ideas42 found that tenants could be incentivized to pay on time if they were offered entry into a raffle for $100 or a month of free rent. This has now become a standard practice by the housing agency.

Most recently, Ideas42 has been commissioned by the Gates Foundation to examine ways in which giving patterns can be influenced on a wide scale. In addition to examining research on behavioral science, Ideas42 is collaborating with Paypal, Benevity, and Bright Funds — three digital platforms that enable giving — to test new products that might increase donations. Survey data clearly indicates that donors increasingly value nonprofit performance, but are unsure how to assess it. Mr. Tantia would like to address this disconnect: "The entire charitable-giving industry is set up in such a way that it encourages emotional or impulsive giving. If we want to change that, we have to try completely new approaches.”

Read more at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.