This week at school my children have been learning all about coins, counting and the value of money. But in our house this has caused a challenge. We don’t have any cash, just cards! Result? We’ve scrabbling around- down the back of the sofa- trying to find coins and notes to help a six year old learn the value of money.
So cash it appears is still something useful to know about, even for children. This experience has got me thinking though- as a fundraiser- do we still want notes, coins. To paraphrase Adventures of Stevie V do we still want ‘dirty cash’?
Let’s put this into context. For years the death of cash has been forecast, and there is some evidence not just from our own family experience, that cash is less used in the current situation. However, the reports of the death of cash are perhaps premature. At the start of the pandemic it was unclear how long the virus could live on notes and coins . As a result many shops converted to contactless payments only. To encourage this in the recent budget the Chancellor increased the limit on contactless to £100.
When venues, theatres, museums and galleries briefly opened in the summer/autumn 2020 we had all adapted to be cashless in order to keep staff and donors safe. Some of us wondered what this would mean for the charity donation box? And for the ‘spare change mentality’ of dropping in coins at the end or beginning of a visit?
So what happened when venues opened – did visitors use contactless to reduce contact and risks of infection? With no option but to use contactless donations you would assume that they would. However, as anthropologist Margaret Mead has said “what people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things” and changing behaviours is not as simple as it seems.
Before reopening the theatre we cleared out the donation box of cash- finding a Brexit 50p, a sixpence, an English pound note and the usual assorted non-UK currencies. We had installed a new contactless donation point, and blocked the holes for cash. Within minutes of opening the building, we had to fetch the keys to the donation box to remove a £10 note. And again, and again that day we had to remove physical notes. This was happening despite the fact visitors had to physically manipulate the plastic barriers to slide a note in. However, many were determined. Catching up with colleagues from the world’s largest arts experiment in decision science this donor desire was a common experience over the summer and autumn in theatres and galleries. There were people who had cash and they were very keen to donate it. The contactless option wasn’t working for them. People still had physical money (which they could not spend) and it looks to me like many want to continue to use it in the same way.
Contactless has been heralded as a way to make it easier and quicker for people to make donations. And it can be all of that. There have been engaging examples on great contactless points – feeding the hungry or setting the prisoners free. We have all used contactless payments a lot more in the past twelve months. After all what makes us change our behaviour, if not a global pandemic? But is the change fundamental and permanent?
We can look for insight to past disruptions to the ‘normal’ for what they tell us about human behaviour and what actually changes permanently. Jenny Roper, Head of Insight at Kinetic, speaking at Nudgestock 2020 highlighted that even significant temporary changes do not necessarily create a new normal. Looking at historic data on the impacts of major terror attacks (9/11 and 7/7) on public transport usage shows that behaviour changes were short lived. In London after 7/7 with no trains or buses people walked, or caught the boat. But once normal service was resumed people were back on the tube and bus. And humans have been using coins (or shells) for monetary exchange for over 40,000 years so will this twelve month hiatus change us? To make a change in behaviour stick it needs to be easier and more convenient to maintain otherwise we don’t keep doing it.
As the steps for relaxation of restrictions are announced will we see the conversion to contactless stick? Is it easier to give contactless? – arguably yes. We do it now for the majority of transactions. But frequently cash is not an option. And is there a demographic of donors who prefer cash. Smaller, independent retailers often prefer cash to avoid transaction fees. So people might prefer it but is tapping the phone/the card as psychologically engaging and handing over cash? Does it give donors the same agency? Does it satisfy the same emotional need?
Interestingly, while toilet rolls were being hoarded in March 2020 so was cash. People want physical cash at times of emergency – also seen pre-Millennium with the Y2K hysteria and in 2008/9 recession. Omar Mahmoud of UNICEF has spoken about the toilet paper hoarding answering an emotional need for comfort and security- hence all the puppies and fluffy clouds on the packages. What emotional need was being answered by having cash at home? Perhaps a sense security, a feeling of independence, a an opportunity for agency. As a species something in our reptilian brain wants the physical and tangible cash – to have and to hold. (Or to store under the mattress). There is some evidence for this. In July 2020 when restrictions were reduced, cash withdrawals from ATMs in the UK went up to £1.5bn each week. Marky Philips’ research has highlighted that donors are desperate for agency in times of crisis and perhaps having the physical notes in our hands at home gives donors that.
Contactless donations often prime us to give a default amount – reducing the cognitive load with a set amount (tap to give £10 or £5). But does that make the process counter-intuitive, inciting the system 2 brain to ask ‘do I care £5 about this?’ One new version of a contactless donation point I have seen includes a hand sanitiser dispenser and alongside it tap to give. Whilst this might incite reciprocity, it seems to also be inciting system 2 and prompts you to ask ‘is it worth a £3 donation to get hand sanitiser? Hand sanitiser should be free.’ We know that psychologically being reminded about money makes us less helpful, less moral and more goal orientated. Perhaps the unanchored donation box keeps the agency with the donor, removing the transactional sense and allowing them to make a choice about how much they want to support.
Do we get the same DOSE (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins) of happy chemicals when donating with our phone/contactless? Does the contactless ping/vibration of the phone give us the same satisfaction of donating as physically dropping a coin in the donation box? Studies in neuromarketing indicate that sound (along with smell) is one of the two most powerful senses. The neurons in the brain fired when hearing sounds are evocative and powerful. Like Pavlov’s dogs we still default to the sound of the coin landing rather than the phone pinging for that emotional reward. Maybe if contactless donation points made the clink of a coin landing on other coins they would be more attractive?
With a physical donation box, you also get the encouragement of social proof with others visibly making donations. (Donation boxes with a visible float perform better.) This is harder to replicate on a contactless system.
Doubtless, there are many issues with physical donation boxes – their positions, their designs, their static nature, their lack of relationship with the donor. And many are not optimised to drive donation. But if they disappear I worry we will we be making it harder for supporters to spontaneously show they care and make a donation?
And if ‘money talks’ we will need to wait and see how it talks and if behaviours change in the summer of 2021.
Marina Jones is Head of Membership and Fundraising Campaigns at Royal Opera House. She’s the joint author of MINDSPACE: Helping Supporters Choose – putting the science into cultural fundraising.