Donor identity can be key to fundraising

Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang
Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang

Jen Shang and Adrian Sargeant

[Editor’s note: At a PJ webinar on Feb. 22, Jen Shang and Adrian Sargeant will examine “Philanthropic psychology: Using donor identify to increase giving.” To learn more, click here.]

A new academic discipline is about to emerge — philanthropic psychology.

The aim of researchers in this field is to increase giving and improve the overall quality of the donor experience.

They do this by generating practical ideas that fundraisers can integrate into their professional practice.

The field draws on theory from psychology and also recognizes that people have manifold and often complex motives for giving.

So any ideas that academics might come up with are thoroughly tested in a sequence of live experiments conducted in partnership with nonprofits.

Early work conducted at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University has helped organizations increase the revenue generated by their fundraising by between 10 percent and 30 percent.

National Public Radio stations across the U.S., for example, periodically raise funds through a combination of direct-mail and on-air fund drives that challenge listeners to call in with a donation.

Working in partnership with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and 10 stations across the U.S., a research team looked at the role that the provision of “social information” might play in stimulating giving.

Based on the script telemarketers used when listeners called in to make their donation, the researchers found that providing social information about the amount of another donor’s contribution generally increased the amounts that people would donate.

They also found there was an optimal amount that could be used in the script that would increase giving by an average, for new donors, of 29 percent.

And they found that if the script matched the gender of the caller with the gender of the donor who had made the optimal gift, the value of the giving increased by an average of 34 percent.

This result tells us that individuals do pay attention to social information and in particular social information that links in some way to their own identity.

It also tells us that this information has the capacity to dramatically increase giving.

This effect works best when donors have what is termed a “high social identity esteem,” or  a good feeling about being a member of a certain category – in this case gender, and also – critically — when attention is deliberately focused on others.

So appeals that talk about other people’s behavior, why other people value the organization, and how other people benefit from the organization will maximize this effect.

Appeals focusing on the donor will not draw enough attention to others and will therefore not be as effective.

Gender is of course only one identity that we possess and quite possibly one of the least relevant to the context of donations.

Intuitively, we might expect other identities could be more powerful.

In the context of environmental groups, for example, individuals might see themselves as a supporter, conservationist, environmental advocate, campaigner or perhaps as someone who behaves responsibly when it comes to their own impact on the environment.

Each of these identities could be primed in the same way as gender in communications.

Another way in which fundraisers can make use of people’s identity is through donors’ identification with an organization.

In a further study we conducted in the area of public radio, for example, listeners who called in to a radio station to make a donation during an on-air fund drive were asked how much they identified themselves with the station.

The more donors identified themselves with the station, we found, the more likely they were to give.

Interestingly, priming that identification by asking people about it directly before they offered their gift significantly increased the amount they were willing to donate.

Many charities routinely attempt to build up donors’ feelings of identification with their organization.

They want donors to begin to see their support of the organization as a critical part of who they are and deliberately attempt to foster this over time.

This is a smart strategy: Donors with higher levels of identification give more – a lot more.

Not surprisingly, high levels of loyalty are also engendered from individuals who develop this perspective.

What our work suggests, however, is that to be most effective, donors need to be reminded that they have this view and, ideally, they should be reminded right before they select the amount of their donation.

Psychology has much to offer the fundraising profession, and we are only just beginning to unlock its secrets.

Feb. 22 | 1pm-2pm ET
Philanthropic psychology: Using donor identity to increase giving

Jen Shang is an assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington; Adrian Sargeant is the Robert F. Hartsook Professor of Fundraising at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

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