Nonprofits’ Field of Vision

Four consumer psychology insights that drive the nonprofit marketing agenda

Nonprofits’ Field of Vision

The Essentials

Nonprofits are always competing to attract and retain donors and volunteers, with novel approaches showing up all the time — from the ALS ice bucket challenge to the yellow LIVESTRONG armbands so popular several years ago. But when trying to coax people into giving up their time or money for a cause, what should nonprofit leaders really focus on? Drawing on insights from consumer psychology, Smith School of Business Assistant Professor Monica LaBarge separates the signal from the noise.

Demographics to Fill in Identity Gaps

Through census data or simple observation, organizations can gain an overview of current donors’ backgrounds fairly easily, including their sex, age, income, and location. They can delve even deeper with a little extra effort, categorizing contributors’ political affiliations, hobbies, attitudes, and interests to gain a sense of who supports specific causes.

But challenges arise when nonprofits try to measure psychological factors that affect a person’s donations and volunteering, LaBarge says. Studies have shown that our individual identity — how we present ourselves to the world — affects giving, and people with a strong moral identity are more likely to volunteer their time than their money. This kind of information can strongly affect how a nonprofit approaches an individual, but it’s not an easily measurable trait.

So while the nonprofits should do everything possible to learn what they can of their contributors, there is always more that lies below the surface that will affect people’s donations and volunteering. LaBarge advises managers to carefully study how donors react to their pitches, even if the outcome is not what they desired. There’s always something to learn.

Information Processing Tactics to Shape Choices

While nonprofits know they can appeal to contributors through reasoning or emotion, many subconscious variables are also at play when it comes to making choices. These can work to a nonprofit’s favour or detriment. For example, if an organization’s message — regardless of how well-supported it might be — jars with a person’s preconceived notions, the message will most likely be ignored. People are also more likely to connect with a charity that evokes emotionally charged memories or that they can relate to personally.

While there is little nonprofits can do to counter individual biases, LaBarge says they can make it easier for potential contributors to make a favourable decision. For one thing, they can limit volunteers’ options. Contrary to the popular notion that happiness increases when we are given many options, research shows that when faced with an overwhelming set of choices, consumers are confused and their happiness levels dip. “More is not always better,” LaBarge says. “It may just be more.”

Research shows that when faced with an overwhelming set of choices, consumers are confused and their happiness levels dip. “More is not always better. It may just be more”

Nonprofits can also use choice architecture to prime contributors for decision making. When people are presented information in familiar contexts (such as labelling food with green, yellow, or red stickers when it comes to judging nutritional content), it helps them make choices easily. Presenting information in this way help nonprofits effectively reach their consumers subconsciously, making their messages easier to absorb.

Nonprofits can also present choices in situations where people might not have otherwise encountered them. For example, supermarket cashiers can present customers with the option of donating a dollar to charity, an approach that has shown a certain amount of success. LaBarge warns this tactic could come at a price. When donating at a cash register where a certain percentage of the purchase price goes towards a cause, many consumers decrease the amount of support they would have otherwise offered the same organization. 

Giving Calculus to Win a Share of the “Mental Budget”

Most people tend to run informal mental budgets in the back of their minds, allotting themselves a certain amount for food, clothing, rent, hobbies, and . . . donations. While charitable people tend to allot about 10 percent of their income to giving — generally more if they are tightly aligned with the cause — this amount is flexible. If a charity event overlaps with their mental budget for fun events, most people will borrow from that category, even if they have already fulfilled their “charity” budget. 

Charities should also be mindful of the statistics they use when presenting audiences with information, LaBarge says. There is a “collapse of compassion” when numbers become too high for us to imagine, which is why people can seem uncaring when news flashes put victims of genocides or flash floods in the thousands or millions. At a certain point, people simply are unable to interpret such a large number, so they check out. Instead, donors tend to give more when they feel they are donating to a specific person or group rather than to a large number of people.

Emotional Levers to Score Enduring Success

Organizations pull on a variety of heartstrings when trying to attract donors. “Empathy is really the engine that drives social action,” says LaBarge. And it’s an emotion that’s far more effective, overall, than making people feel guilt or social pressure. Guilt can be an effective tool for short-term success but can backfire in the long run. When people feel they have been dared or guilt-tripped into donating rather than having done it of their own free will, they can feel resentful toward the nonprofit in the long run. Your audience isn’t stupid, LaBarge says, and your persuasion methods should not disrespect your current or prospective donors or volunteers.

As for what’s the most effective emotional tool to attract donors, happiness wins hands down. According to LaBarge, happier people tend to give more generously. And the emotion has a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to contributors, since those who donate and volunteer report higher levels of happiness.

Kenza Moller