We know that donors love donation matching.* We know that if we could offer donation matching on gifts to our top charities this giving season, our money moved would rise. And we know that we could offer donation matching if we thought it was the right thing to do: there are donors planning six-figure gifts to our top charities this year who would almost certainly be willing to structure their gifts as “matches” if we asked. (It might not be possible to “match” all of our money moved, but we could almost certainly provide “matching” for a short period, which would motivate people to give during that period and would also provide us with some data on the impact of matching on our audience.)
But we’ve decided not to do this because we would feel dishonest. We’d be advertising that you can “double your gift,” but the truth would be that we just restructured a gift from a six-figure donor that was going to happen anyway. We’ve discussed whether we might be able to provide “true” donation matching – finding a donor who would give to our top charities only on condition that others did – but not surprisingly, everyone we could think of who would be open to making a large gift to our top charities would be open to this whether or not we could match them up with smaller donors. Ultimately, the only match we can offer is illusory matching.
I don’t deny that non-illusory matching may exist in some other circumstances. A couple possibilities:
- Coordination matching. A charity needs to raise a specific amount for a specific purpose. A large funder (the “matcher”) is happy to contribute part of the amount needed as long as the specific purpose is achieved; therefore, the matcher makes the gift conditional on other gifts.
- Influence matching. The matcher wishes both to support a particular charity and to encourage others to give to that charity. Therefore, the matcher makes a legitimate commitment to give only if others do, in an attempt to influence their giving.
In both of these cases, it may seem at first glance that a one-to-one match really does “double” your donation, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple.
Regarding coordination matching – I would guess it’s relatively common for a funder to say privately, for example, “I’ll give $100,000 if you can raise the remaining needed $900,000.” But there are a couple of problems when it comes to advertising this situation as a “match.” First, saying “every $9 you give will be matched with $1 from a major donor” wouldn’t be very psychologically compelling – matches rarely go below the 1:1 threshold. Second, even if the funder were providing enough for a 1:1 match, it still wouldn’t be quite true that each $1 was matched with another $1: the match would occur only in the case that the total amount needed was raised. So while “coordination matching” is a possibility, we would guess that it rarely explains the “each $1 you give will be matched by $1” campaigns commonly used in fundraising.
Influence matching is something I think impact-maximizing donors ought to be concerned about. In the short run, influence matching makes it true that your $1 donation results in $2 donated to the charity in question. But it also means that you’ve let the matching funder influence your giving – perhaps pulling you away from the most impactful charity (in your judgment) to a less impactful one – just by the way they structured their gift. By giving, you are rewarding this behavior by the matching funder, and you may be encouraging them to take future unconditional gifts and turn them into conditional gifts, because of the ability to sway other donors.
Perhaps, rather than giving your $1 to the charity the matching funder is pushing, you should fight back by structuring your own influence matching – making a conditional commitment to the highest-impact charity you can find, in order to pull other dollars in toward it.
For the average donation match, it’s unclear to what extent the match represents illusory matching vs. coordination matching vs. influence matching. My guess is that coordination matching is by far the least common (since it requires such a specific set of circumstances to hold) and that illusory matching is the norm (since this is generally the easiest to offer, and since donors don’t tend to distinguish between the different types when they decide where and how much to give).
Corporate matching programs sometimes match only gifts to specific charities; in this case I think it’s best to think of them as “influence matching.” If the company offered matching to any charity (as some companies do) and/or simply made gifts to the charities of its choice, it would no longer be pushing its employees to support specific charities. If you are employed at a company offering matching only on specific charities, I recommend pushing for a change in policy (to unconditional gifts to charities and/or unconditional matching for employees, as other companies do) rather than perpetuating a dynamic where your company’s corporate philanthropy team decides where you give.
In general, I advise donors seeking to maximize their impact to simply support the most impactful charity possible, and not to factor in the presence or absence of donation matching either way. If you support a less impactful charity due to the presence of a match, you may be having more total impact, but you also may be having substantially less (in the case of illusory matching) and/or contributing a dynamic that leads to less effective giving broadly (a risk both for influence matching and illusory matching).
GiveWell may offer donation matching sometime in the future. If so, we will be explicit about whether it is influence matching or coordination matching (we wouldn’t be comfortable offering illusory matching, except perhaps as a joke – i.e., “If you’re thinking of giving to another charity just because of a donation match, let us know and we’ll get your donation to a top-rated charity matched”). If we do implement influence matching, it will be to (a) fully neutralize the effect of other matches on impact-oriented donors, further encouraging them to support the most impactful charities possible; (b) raise money from non-impact-oriented donors who are happy to have their donation “matched” despite the logic above.
*“Donation matching” refers to when a large funder offers to give $X to a particular charity for every $Y other people give – for example, “For every $1 you give to this charity, a large funder will contribute another $1, doubling your impact!” For more, see the 2007 study on donation matching by Dean Karlan.