Finding new organ donors


Finding new organ donors

A Queen’s marketing professor is being recognized for helping grow Ontario’s organ donor registration list by tapping into the power of reciprocal altruism.

By Communications Staff

February 28, 2023


Photograph of Nicole Robitaille
Nicole Robitaille is finding ways to use behavioral science to help motivate people to register as organ donors.

Sometimes it can be difficult for researchers to quantify the real-world impact of their work, but for Nicole Robitaille, assistant professor of marketing in Smith School of Business at Queen’s, it’s relatively easy. Her work on securing more organ donors has helped increase registration in Ontario’s organ donation program among eligible adults from 24 per cent in 2014 to 35 per cent today, an increase that could save or improve the lives of thousands each year by making the donation process more efficient.

The Financial Times, a leading UK newspaper, has recently taken notice of the significance of Dr. Robitaille’s work and honored her with a 2023 Responsible Business Education Award. These awards recognize the contributions of researchers in business schools whose work helps organizations and companies achieve positive social impact.

“I’m always searching for ways to ensure my research makes a difference, and with this project I found an ideal team of multidisciplinary researchers and policymakers to not only advance marketing theory but also drive meaningful change,” says Dr. Robitaille. “Realizing that this study could really help improve or even save lives was deeply moving, and I’m honored that the Financial Times has recognized the importance of these findings for improving organ donor registrations.”

Dr. Robitaille became interested in this work when she noticed the large gap between support for organ donations and registered donors. While 90 per cent of people in Canada support organ donation, according to an Ipsos survey, far fewer register as donors. Insufficient registration can have serious consequences as roughly 1,300 individuals are on the donation wait list in the province and people die each year waiting for life-saving transplants.

She approached this as a problem behavioral science could help solve. By simplifying registration forms and providing people with promotional material at the right time, Dr. Robitaille hypothesized that more people could be motivated to register. She also wanted to experiment with promotional materials that use a tactic known as reciprocal altruism to pose a simple but incisive question to potential registrants: “If you needed a transplant, would you have one? If so, please help save lives and register today.”

Teaming up with other researchers and the Ontario government, Dr. Robitaille was able to use a Service Ontario location as a testing ground. Over the course of the field experiment, the team found that their hypothesis was correct: simplified forms, timely promotional materials, and reciprocal altruism were very effective in convincing people to register. After seeing the results, Ontario’s registration service adopted several of the recommendations of the study and have seen registrations increase ever since.

“Awards such as this help recognize the important research our faculty are doing,” says Wanda Costen, Dean of Smith School of Business. “Business schools must be leaders in making a positive difference in society, and our faculty play an important role in showcasing the positive impact business can have in society.”

Read Dr. Robitaille’s study in Journal of Marketing and learn more about her work on the Smith School of Business website.

Business and Economics