Dear Dylan: How to run the best raffle ever

September 1, 2013

It's time for round three of Wonkblog's resident advice column. For the first installment, click here. For the last one, click here. If you have a question for Dear Dylan, either tweet at #DearDylan or e-mail firstnameuhhuh (dot) lastnameohyeah (at) gmail (dot) com, a real e-mail address registered for this purpose.


Let's get ready to raffffflllllle … (Evelio Contreras/The Washington Post)

Question: I volunteer for a local nonprofit that has an annual fundraiser. The fundraiser includes a raffle for various donated items (gift certificates, food, movie tickets, golf packages, etc.) that we have made into gift baskets. The attendees at our event buy raffle tickets ($1 each or $20 for 25 tickets) and place them in a container in front of the basket they hope to win. At a set time during the event we draw one winner per basket. Last year we had about 110 such baskets.

Of course, the number of tickets "bid" for each basket varies based on the perceived value of that item. Sometimes there are only a few "bids" on a basket, so we only take in a few dollars for that item.

Is there a way to maximize the amount we make from this? For instance, if we cut the number of baskets (in half, perhaps), will people buy more tickets to increase their chances? Should we add a second price level (maybe $5) for the better items?

— Raffler

Answer: First off, choosing a raffle over an auction was a great call. There's a fair number of experimental studies at this point showing that raffles (or "charitable lotteries," which appears to be the preferred technical term) produce more revenue than auctions or simply soliciting donations. What's more, Donald Dale at Muhlenberg College has found that fixed-prize lotteries do better than ones where the prize rises with participation (for example, a lottery where the prize is set at 50 percent of ticket sales).

But beyond that, I'm not sure there's much the experimental economics literature can tell us on optimally designing charitable events. The University of Hamburg's Andreas Lange, the University of Chicago's John List and the University of Tennessee's Michael Price found that if the participants in a raffle  care equally about the cause the money's going to, single prize raffles raise more money. They expected that if the amount people care varied, multiple prize raffles would come out ahead. But Lange, List and Price's experiment found that in that situation, the revenue generated from single and multiple prize raffles was statistically indistinguishable.

What should you make of that? Well, for one thing, this tells us that the research on these topics is very young and you shouldn't draw much in the way of hard and fast conclusions. The Lange/List/Price experiment provides modest evidence in favor of having only one prize. Effectively, that's what you're doing now. By having people choose what raffle to enter, you're effectively running 110 single prize raffles rather than one huge raffle with 110 prizes.

So you can take some comfort there, but beyond that, I'm not sure I can be of much assistance. Instead, since social science can't help you, maybe you can help social science. Randomly split the bundles in half. For 55, do what you've done before. For the others, create 11 bundles by combining the existing ones into groups of five. Charge one ticket to enter the former raffles, and five tickets to enter the latter. See what happens. If the average number of entries in the bundled raffles is less than five times the average number of entries in the normal ones, you can interpret that as evidence that you should go back to your old method. But if you more than quintuple the entries, that suggests you may be on to something.

Question: I know you recently answered a question about baby names, but bear with me. I've begun to encounter far more Dylans in daily life as I've grown older. In the '90s, I was the only Dylan in school until my senior year, when a female Dylan arrived. But in college, there were an astonishing six Dylans in my class, and since college I've met many, many more. A quick search of SSA data shows that Dylan was the 187th most popular name in the '80s, 34th in the '90s (ugh, 90210) and 23rd in the '00s, so it's no surprise that the number of Dylans reaching adulthood is growing. My concern is this: My positive feeling of having a slightly off-beat name has been diminished lately. Will I ever get that feeling back? Or should I resign myself to the fact that the rest of my life will include regularly encountering Dylans and seeing their name in Washington Post bylines?

— A Concerned Dylan

Answer: The good news is the number of new Dylans, as a share of new births, is falling. The bad news is that the name got a lot more popular in the 1990s, and so those of us born in the early 1990s or late 1980s are going to be followed by a bunch of twerps with our name. I don't think rankings data is a particularly good judge here, as it doesn't tell you by how much, say, the name "Jayden" is beating the name "Michael" (which it did in 2012, a sure sign that  America is imminently going to be conquered by Visigoths).

But luckily the Social Security Administration puts out name counts for names given to five or more people each year. While the SSA data goes back to 1880, "Dylan" didn't cross the five newborn threshold until 1953, and as a girl's name it didn't register until 1967. To avoid being misled by differences in annual birth rates, I cross-referenced the data against the CDC's live births data; I used this report for years through 2002 and used annual reports thereafter, inferring male and female counts by way of the published sex ratio for 2008-2012, years when the raw births-by-sex counts were not included in annual reports. I didn't include instances of the spelling "Dillon" because that spelling is an atrocity.

Both the male and total Dylan rates peaked in 2001, and the late '90s and early '00s generally were a good time for Dylan births. That means that there are a bunch of teenagers with the name now who will be entering the workforce shortly and causing confusion with those of us who got the name just as it was starting to be cool.

So yeah, our name isn't exactly rare anymore. We're not Michaels or Matts or Christophers by any means, but we're hardly the special little snowflakes we thought we were growing up, either. Indeed, I know of at least two other Dylans who work as journalists in D.C., and the number is sure to grow as the late '90s, early '00s crop graduates from college. So prepare for a lot of e-mails meant for other, younger Dylans.

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