What charities can learn from an airport toilet

By Matilda Macduff 7 May 2010

What do these three things have in common?

  • A restaurant menu with prices displayed discreetly next to each dish, rather than in a column down one side.
  • A scheme in US cities where teenage mothers receive a dollar-a-day for every day they don’t get pregnant again.
  • An image of a housefly etched onto a urinal in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

If you’ve read Thaler and Sunstein’s book ‘Nudge’ (or looked at their blog), you’ll know I’m talking about ‘choice architecture’—the idea that presenting an option in the right way makes people more likely to respond by doing what you want. In the examples above, this means choosing a more expensive meal, not having another child, and reducing ‘spillage’ in men’s toilets!

Joe Saxton at nfpsynergy, the research consultancy specialising in non-profit organisations, recently wrote an editorial encouraging charities to use ‘nudging’ to increase revenue from donations. This got us thinking about how else the effectiveness of the sector could be improved through ‘nudging’.

Take trustee boards, for example. Trustees have a crucial role to play to ensure their charities are well run. But our report on the topic, Board matters, found recruiting trustees can be challenging. Nearly half of charities have board vacancies, and 95% of UK residents don’t know that you can support a charity by becoming a trustee.

Our report suggests several ways to strengthen trusteeship. But how could we use nudging to encourage more people to become trustees in the first place?

One way is to engage employers, and let them do the nudging. Employer-supported volunteering allows employees time off to volunteer, which could include sitting on the board of a charity. Many organisations already have some kind of volunteering scheme as part of their CSR programme, but perhaps becoming a trustee is not as well-promoted as other options. Possible nudges could include ensuring everyone is aware of volunteering time (and it’s not lost amongst the deluge of information for new recruits!), and directing staff to websites specifically dealing with trusteeship, such as ‘Getting on Board’, NCVO’s Trustee Bank, and TrusteeWorks.

How else can we nudge people towards becoming trustees, or nudge the wider charity sector to be more effective?