Is Your Nonprofit Apolitical? Think Again…
Political attitudes spill over into many aspects of our culture, and charitable giving is no exception. It’s important to understand the forces at work in order to effectively message your constituents. That’s not much of a problem for the NRA or the ACLU, but how about Susan G. Komen or the Children’s Defense Fund? Depending on your mission, you need to know how to speak to conservatives or liberals. Or everybody.
Let’s take a minute and guess your political leanings—here goes. You are as liberal as you consider to be prudent. Often, you think that people who are more conservative than you are too narrow-minded, and people who are more liberal are naïve.
How’d we do? Of course, that doesn’t just describe you, it describes everybody. George Carlin put it this way when talking about driving: “Have you ever noticed that when you’re driving, anyone going slower than you are is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” In our hyper-polarized culture, it’s not always easy to find the right speed with regards to politics. It’s hard to keep some people from seeing your organization as an idiot, or a maniac.
Here’s some good news. One question that has been debated for years is whether liberals or conservatives engage more in prosocial behavior. In the only experimental study conducted to test this question, there were no significant differences in giving based on a person’s political identity. That means that everybody is fair game, regardless of their political affiliation. So, what’s the key to crack the code for people of various political persuasions?
It’s tough without understanding what makes both liberals and conservatives tick. You need some kind of a user’s manual. For example, let’s say you’re smart, liberal and well-informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans voted Republican in the last election. You think they’re being duped. You’d be wrong.
Here’s why: One myth that’s been dispelled is that “people vote their pocketbooks.” In fact, people vote their values. It turns out that charitable giving is based on values as well.
If charitable giving is based in large part on personal values, it would be great to know how the moral values of liberals and conservatives differ. Here’s where that user’s manual comes in. The most important work on this question was done by New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt developed the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) that was described in his 2012 book, "The Righteous Mind." (If you want to read more about the moral foundations themselves, you can download a chapter from the book here.)
MFT was created to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. Learning about MFT is like putting on a pair of glasses for the first time. The blurry lines that separate liberals and conservatives come into sharp focus.
According to MFT, moral values are based on five “foundations.” They are:
1) Harm/care—associated with concern about caring, nurturing and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm.
2) Fairness/reciprocity—considers the notions of rights, justice and what people owe to each other.
3) In-group/loyalty—concerns patriotism and self-sacrifice for one's group.
4) Authority/respect—focuses on the importance of social order and respect for leadership and traditions.
5) Purity/sanctity—refers to a more spiritual mindset that resists the carnal nature of humans.
A person’s political identity is dependent on the moral foundations they value, and it turns out that liberals and conservatives differ—a lot. Specifically, liberals find the first two, issues of harm and fairness, to be of higher moral relevance than conservatives do. Together, the first two are sometimes called the “individualizing” foundations.”
Conversely, conservatives find the last three moral foundations, which concern issues of authority, group loyalty and purity, to be of higher moral relevance than liberals do. Together they have been called the “binding” foundations.
But here’s the big difference. While conservatives place some value on all five foundations, liberals focus almost entirely on just the first two. Let’s look at an example of how this works. Like we said earlier, it’s like putting a pair of glasses on for the first time…
Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order—these Republican themes touch all five moral foundations. Whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They dine from a more varied menu.
In "The Righteous Mind," Haidt describes research which demonstrates that conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives. He says:
“When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations—Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity—I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.”
Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational. If you want to persuade others you have to appeal to their sentiments, their moral values. Which brings us back to how to craft your nonprofit’s messaging. How do moral foundations offer insights into the effects of political identity on helping others? Do conservatives and liberals donate more or less to a specific charity based on the degree to which the charity's moral foundations are aligned with their own political identity?
Research has shown this to be true. When a nonprofit is characterized by binding moral foundations, conservatives donate more to the charity than liberals. Conversely, when a nonprofit is characterized by individualizing moral foundations, liberals donate more than conservatives.
What this means is, by stressing individualizing foundations we may be failing to attract conservatives who might otherwise become supporters. We know they (individualizing foundations) are of greater relevance to liberals. Also, individualizing foundations of care and fairness are usually found in nonprofit missions. Conservatives who value binding and individualizing foundations equally may need to believe that binding foundations are also important to the nonprofit before they will donate.
The takeaway? Understanding the moral foundations that resonate with both liberals and conservatives is essential. If you want to cast a wide net, take care to characterize your mission in ways that will appeal to both. Once you understand the five foundations, you’ve cracked the code.
You’ve probably seen that bumper sticker, “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands.” Know your audience? Yeah, those NRA guys are pretty good…
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.