Editors’ note:
This article, first published in print during May/June 2011, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.


MATCHES HAVE LONG BEEN A STAPLE of fundraising. From direct mail to online fundraising and public radio membership drive campaigns, matching gifts inspire supporters to give and give generously. Matches work so often that it’s simply a given in the world of fundraising: if you want to do something that will result in more money and more gifts, use a match.

Using matches to bolster the performance of fundraising campaigns was a best practice long before a 2006 study by economics professors Dean Karlan and John List published in the American Economic Review found that the mere existence of a match increased the likelihood that an individual would donate by 22 per-cent. A match not only boosted the response rate—the number of people who gave—but it brought in more cash overall for the direct mail appeal they tested. While the test was conducted in a direct mail context, the principle remains the same in the online world: matches make your donors more likely to give.

Find a Donor

So what’s stopping you from running a match campaign? The few barriers organizations perceive that prevent them from using this tactic can seem significant. Perhaps you don’t have a donor who will make a matching gift. Maybe you’re afraid of what will happen if you can’t meet the match—will you have to offer refunds to everyone who contributes toward it? Maybe you don’t know what size match works best.

The biggest of these barriers is the lack of easy access to a do-nor who will commit to making the matching gift. If you don’t already have a match lined up, you might wonder how you’ll come up with an additional $10,000, $50,000, or $100,000 gift with which to challenge your other donors.

But don’t let that stop you—if you’re not able to get a commitment for an additional gift, ask a donor who has already donated a substantial gift to your organization if you can use that gift to create a match campaign. This can be a little unnerving if you intend to proceed with a truly conditional match—the type of match that is contributed only if you meet your stated goal.

But there are a couple of ways around this. First, consider using a match that isn’t conditional—that is, your organization will receive the gift even if you don’t hit your stated goal. Many organizations have used unconditional matches to great effect.

Here’s how you might speak to your constituents differently about a conditional and unconditional match:

Conditional: An anonymous donor has committed to making a gift of $100,000—but only if we can meet her match before midnight tonight. Make your tax-deductible gift now.

Unconditional: Make your tax-deductible gift before midnight tonight and your gift will be matched by an anonymous donor, dollar for dollar, up to $100,000.

A second option is to proceed with a conditional match, but stick with an amount that you’re certain you can meet. The amount of the match is less important than the presence of the match—in the Karlan and List study, there was no significant response difference between segments of the file that received letters with match amounts of $25,000, $50,000, or $100,000.

That said, you’ll want to choose an amount that you consistently hit in all your online fundraising efforts. For example, if your last three online fundraising campaigns have brought in

$25,000, $18,000, and $15,000, you’ll likely be in the clear if you go with a $10,000 goal for your match. Just make sure you use a benchmark other than your year-end fundraising campaign to set y