Donation BehaviorExpert Opinion

Like Minded

Like Minded

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A Charity Navigator report showed an estimated $373 billion was given to charitable causes in the U.S. in 2015, with 71% of donations coming from individuals. Individuals donate to a variety of nonprofit causes such as religion (33%), education (16%), human services (12%), health (8%) and public-society benefits (7%).

Melinda Gates, a pioneer of the Giving Pledge initiative, argues: “Philanthropy is different around the world, but almost every culture has a long-standing tradition of giving back.” This statement suggests that people donate not just to give back, but to fulfill multiple motivations. Nonprofits can address five specific motivations to encourage donor engagement.

1. Moral Identity

Formalized in 2002, moral identity is the extent to which the idea of being moral is important to a person’s self-concept.

A 2009 study examined differences between men and women donating to victims of Hurricane Katrina or victims of terrorism in the U.S. or Middle East. The study found that men, in general, are less likely to donate than women. However, as the importance of moral identity increased, donation behavior increased among both males and females.

Scores of studies with many samples of customers in different donation contexts and for a variety of nonprofits show the same conclusion: Donors who place a higher importance on moral identity also donate more.

In addition to identifying current and potential donors who score high on moral identity through a survey, nonprofits can use simple communication strategies to activate the importance of moral identity among donors. Both of these approaches can enable charities to focus on donors with the highest giving potential.

2. Recognition

Donor recognition is a cornerstone of fundraising. Nonprofits recognize donors in newsletters, on websites, by engraving their names on building facades, using ribbons pinned to donors’ jackets and sending them thank-you notes. Yet, donor recognition does not motivate all donors. Recognition may increase donations among donors who are symbolizers, but not among internalizers.

Internalizers feel fulfilled by acknowledging the importance of donation to their own self; they do not need any social verification of the importance of donating. Symbolizers, on the other hand, feel fulfilled when others acknowledge their donation; social verification is crucial for symbolizers. As such, internalizers are uninfluenced by recognition, whereas symbolizers cherish it. The moral-identity scale mentioned earlier can be used to identify symbolizers.

A 2013 study in the Journal of Marketing found that donation increased among symbolizers, but not among internalizers, when a nonprofit said the names of donors would be published on the charity’s website. Symbolizers also donated more when the nonprofit was willing to acknowledge the donation with a thank-you note.

Cost-effective recognition mechanisms can increase donations among symbolizers in a nonprofit’s donor base. Low-cost recognition strategies that are effective include listing donor names on a website, sending thank-you notes and utilizing online tools and social media such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

3. Time Versus Money

Is donating time the same as donating money? Are time and money interchangeable means of donor engagement?

Research in the 2007 issue of the Journal of Marketing shows that donors who place a higher importance on moral identity prefer to donate time than money, even when the opportunity cost of time and money is the same. This happens for two reasons: First, donors may see the act of giving time as embodying the values of care, social responsibility and being heartfelt. Second, donors may view the act of giving time as more self-expressive and engaging than writing a check. This is especially true when time is donated amid multiple other donors and volunteers.

Donating time is more engaging and socially rewarding for donors than donating money. Nonprofits may start by asking donors to volunteer time. As engagement and self-expression increases, donors may be approached for monetary donations. Even when they give a lot of money, donors can feel more committed if they also give time.

4. Charity Positioning

Save the Children is a charity dedicated to helping children get a healthy start in life, an opportunity to learn and protection from harm. Such a charity should be equally attractive to all donors, but in a randomized study, respondents saw Save the Children either as a private charity or as a government-managed agency. Among those with high moral identity, Republicans were more likely to donate when the charity was positioned as a privately managed charity. In contrast, Democrats were more likely to donate when the charity was positioned as a government-managed agency.

Another study showed women were more likely to give to charities positioned as providing for other people—even strangers and distant others. In contrast, males were more likely to give to charities with a narrower focus.

No doubt, the overall mission of a nonprofit is critical to gain donor support. Equally important is aligning the charity’s positioning with the broader set of attitudes and values of its donor base. Are the donors generally more conservative or liberal? Do they care more about local or global causes? Understanding these values can be very useful in soliciting donations.

Identify issues that are important to donors, and align your nonprofit’s positioning and brand to be consistent with these issues and attitudes. This will require subtle changes in the messaging and positioning of a nonprofit, but it can go a long way in improving fundraising.

5. Social Media

When donors were asked to like a charity’s profile on social media, donations decreased among some who liked the charity on social media, compared to those who did not. Termed “slacktivism,” the phenomenon of liking a nonprofit on social media serves two purposes: It fulfills a desire to present a positive image to others and a desire to be consistent with one’s own values. More generally, it serves the dual purpose of internalizing and symbolizing. Intriguingly, after liking a charity on social media, donors donated time and money if they saw the engagement as being meaningful. Thus, social media engagement can be a useful way to prime donors, but only if donors find the subsequent engagement to be meaningful.

Nonprofits can strategically use social media to initiate engagement among their donors. Coupling this with meaningful activities can help donors align their values with the nonprofit’s cause and feel more connected to it. Nonprofits should use social media as part of a larger plan to meaningfully engage donors.

Engage Donors by Treating Them as Customers

Successful organizations long ago realized the complexity of customer needs; the same goes for donor needs. Identifying patrons with a strong sense of moral identity and understanding, whether they are internalizers or symbolizers is a key step for engaging them. Once donors are engaged, nonprofits can manage the engagement process in terms of donor time, money and social media presence.

Finally, the nonprofit’s mission, while crucial, may not be the sole driver of donor engagement. Subtle tweaks to how the mission is communicated to donors can garner strong donor engagement. Insights to address these issues can be easily obtained via surveys and in-depth conversations with donors.

Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Management in Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice Univeristy. 

This article first appeared American Marketing Association's Marketing News as 5 Ways Nonprofits Can Engage Donors. 

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