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Neuromarketing in Fundraising

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Ethan Hanson HeadshotSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Ethan Hanson

Polar Bears are roaming the Sahara Desert: If you had $1k to give, would you support a charity helping wild polar bears in the Sahara Desert?

I think it’s safe to say your answer to the question is “no.” My next question would be, why not? Why wouldn’t you give money to an organization to help support polar bears in the Sahara? Likely because that sounds like the King of Prussia is trying to sell you something through a grammatically broken email scam. Sometimes in our messaging, on our websites, or in other forms, we are shouting “support for polar bears in the Sahara” and we don’t even realize it.

Merkle LogoThis past year, I was asked to be part of a team brought on to do some pro bono work for a foster care charity. By applying the practice of neuroanalytics, we were able to uncover some simple truths by putting the constituents first.

In this article, I’ll walk through what we learned, share some new insights, and maybe a few secrets along the way.

What did we learn from our research?
1 Theory: There is one driving theory behind the donor decision process
2 Pronged Approach: There are two key approaches to uncover the decision process and understand donor motivators
3 Motivations: We uncovered three primary reasons that motivate people to donate
4 Components of Targeting: We applied four critical components to identifying and effectively communicating with donors

1 theory to understand the decision process of donors

95% of the decisions we make happen in the unconscious; in some cases the decisions we make nearly become habitual. Do you know why you bought the shirt you’re wearing or why you choose the type of toothpaste you purchase? There is a reason if you delve into it. Was it to impress or represent who you are? We buy things because they help us to do something, to get somewhere, or to be something. They are a means to some sort of expected end or outcome. This is true in business, in fundraising, and in marketing. The trick is in the application of Means-End Theory to uncover the unconscious and clarify the decision process of constituents.

2 pronged approach to uncover the constituent’s decision process

To uncover the unconscious process of constituents I’ll keep it short. One, talk with them and two, validate what they talked about. That’s it. Utilizing market research approaches such as laddering interviews in a one-on-one setting, you can quickly uncover the step-by step-decision process as to why someone chooses to support one nonprofit verses another. Thus, you can unlock the secrets as to what motivates them and discover the right language and focus to communicate back to constituents how you deliver just what they’re looking for.

3 motivations that drive donor support

When it comes down to it, there are three things that drive constituents:

The cause has to be (1) legitimate.

Our research participants showed us what the table stakes were. When they enter the website and find that it’s unclear, it speaks bogus. When they fill out the donation form and it asks unnecessary questions, it feels like a scam. Unclear messaging about where the funds are being spent says it’s a lie. Anything that makes your prospect question the truthfulness of your cause is the first trigger in their mind to walk away. We often have a fear of the unknown, relying on signs in new territory to assess whether we’re being taken to the cleaners or truly helping the world around us. Even a completely legitimate cause can scare people off by asking for too much information in a way that makes it feel like a scam.

We have to ask ourselves whether we are communicating any ounce of mistrust in every campaign and in every process of our organization. When we’re sending tax information, are we reinforcing how appropriately the funds they donated were spent? Do we take the time to follow every path of our site and gather unbiased feedback? These are the questions constituents asked us by sharing their decision process. Are we helping them to feel like they’re making smart decisions?

The cause must be (2) personal and (3) relevant

Ironically, donors give to receive. The gift in return is an impact to something that’s personal to them and makes some sort of difference in their world. Their world can be defined by the community they live in or an issue they feel passionate about or simply bringing society one step closer to finding a cure to something at their doorstep.

When constituents defined “personal” and “relevant,” they said it came down to five major areas: locality of the organization, involvement of friends or family, a connection to their values, a religious affiliation, and simply that it had to be a real problem. How can we better communicate that our cause is both personal and relevant to each person that considers to donate?

4 critical components to intelligent messaging and targeting

4 critical componentsDuring our research, we found four critical components to intelligent targeting and messaging to drive up to three times the likelihood to donate.

(1) Motivation-based marketing messages reiterate the most important factors to constituents. (2) Find the right donors early on – those most likely to donate to your organization. This can be done with propensity or look-alike models based on prior donors and/or survey responses of constituent considerers. (3) Identifying the traditional sweet spot of fundraising using RFM can never be ignored. Recency of donation, frequency of contribution and monetary value of constituents still holds true and adds tremendous value to the overall approach. (4) Last, and one of the most important components of intelligent messaging, is message clarity. Research is lost without the appropriate translation to marketing messages that provide clarity to our constituents.

The secret comes in the ability to appropriately identify motivations and then intelligently target constituents to efficiently spend our revered funds. The application of neuroanalytics is the modern approach to efficiently increasing fundraising. How is your organization approaching fundraising?


Ethan Hanson is Associate Director, Advanced Methods and Research at Merkle, a performance marketing agency specializing in data-based marketing solutions. Ethan has more than 10 years of experience as a marketing professional with focuses in research, analytics and strategy across CPG, Energy, Entertainment, Health Sciences, Financial Services and High Tech. Ethan and his team were are responsible for some of the first innovations in joining offline research with online data for personalized targeting capabilities.

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