Money, time or both? Our research on message framing.


Photo by Amy Scarfone: 1% for the Planet nonprofit partner, Forterra

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” — Simone Weil

Humans have a deep capacity to give—we can give our money, our time, our experience—and giving our attention is often where we begin. We may read an article about climate impacts on low-lying island nations, or hear a story about a community coming together to clean a polluted waterway, or visit an urban garden surrounded by pavement and tall buildings. That place, those fellow humans, the hope of green growing things catches our attention. And then?

What motivates us to act? What prompts us to make the commitment to give our money, or our time, to the causes we care about? What translates attention into action?

At 1% for the Planet, our attention is captured by a strikingly small number: Environmental nonprofits receive just 3% of all charitable giving in the U.S. This is the smallest allocation to any issue area and is widely seen as insufficient relative to the funding nonprofits need to tackle the pressing issues facing our planet.

1% for the Planet exists to accelerate smart environmental giving. Our global community of thousands of businesses, individuals and nonprofits are collectively addressing the urgent need to increase environmental philanthropy. As we increase the philanthropic resources for our planet, what can we learn along the way?

Last year, we set out to better understand giving motivations. Our goal: To improve our ability to grow environmental philanthropy and, more broadly, to provide insight into giving motivations across the charitable sector. We chose to use 1% for the Planet’s individual member program as the arena for our research. Individual members pledge to donate 1% of their annual salaries to our approved nonprofit partners via monetary donations and/or volunteer support. And we were curious: What is the most effective way to engage people to become individual members?

Specifically, we were interested in learning: Are people motivated to become individual members when the opportunity is presented as a donation of money, time (i.e., volunteer support) or a combination of both?

The test

We sent a series of three monthly emails, in August, September and October 2019, to a group of about 8,000 people who had indicated interest in 1% for the Planet’s individual membership program but had not yet joined. Splitting the list randomly into four groups—Control, Money, Time and Combination (Money and Time)—we sent emails and tracked open rates, click-through rates and other analytics to gain insight into how people responded to the different ways of framing the 1% for the Planet commitment.

The results and what we learned

Framing makes a difference in getting people to click. The Control and Time email groups trended consistently highest for clicks—while the Money group performed poorly compared to the other groups.

In the first month, we found that the Control group had the highest click rate across all groups and this difference was statistically significant. Why might the Control group have outperformed the rest? Some hypotheses include: The Control group text was shorter, which we know generally results in more engagement; the language was more abstract; and the framing sounded more like an offering than an ask. The Control group email was the only one that did not explicitly call out that being a member meant donating 1% of your annual salary (or equivalent). In contrast, the Money, Time and Combo group emails were more explicit about asking for a donation, which could trigger some to turn away and not click.

When we compared the results of the three test groups (Time, Money, Combo), excluding the Control group, we found that the Time group performed best. For example, the October email to the Time group boasted a 15% click rate, which was significantly higher than the Money group that month. The table below shows the language used in all four versions of the October email.





Heading: 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction.

Become a member of 1% for the Planet and pledge to give back to environmental nonprofits. Let us amplify your giving.

The average American spends almost 4% of their pre-tax income on entertainment. Don’t we all have 1% for our planet?

Join us as a member and help save our planet today.

The average American spends 77 days per year watching TV. We must have 2 to 3 days to volunteer for our planet.

Join us as a member and help save our planet today.

We buy things on a whim and watch shows to pass the time. What if we spent our money and time on something we actually love: our planet?

Join us as a member and help save our planet today.

[Button: Join the movement]

12% click rate

8% click rate

15% click rate

14% click rate

The statistically significant finding that time-framing outperforms money-framing is consistent with other literature. Existing research has shown that people are more generous in their donations when thinking about giving time vs. giving money.

At the end of the test, we assessed if any of the email recipients joined 1% for the Planet as individual members. None of the individuals that received emails took this step, which brings us to our final, deceptively obvious takeaway: Email engagement does not equal joining. There are multiple factors that may prevent people from joining, even if they appear interested and click through to our website. For example, once on the Join page, visitors are presented with multiple options for ways to join, and they must scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page.

Our research results will help guide our communications—from the way we write our emails, to how we improve our website to make it easier for individuals to navigate. Further, the process of designing and implementing this research was hugely helpful for our team, illuminating the many variables to attend to, and control for, when seeking to learn how our messages are received by our audience.

We are deeply grateful for funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in support of this research and for the expertise and guidance provided by our behavioral research partner ideas42.