It’s All About the
Conventional wisdom says that when people support nonprofits, “it’s all about the mission.” Nonprofit CEOs and other C-suite executives say this a lot. Their supporters are connected to a cure for cancer, global warming, humane treatment of animals, etc. And when you ask constituents why they do what they do for nonprofits, this is exactly what they will say. It’s all about the kids, homeless animals, clean air and water.
This leads CEOs to the logical conclusion that if they could just spread the word to a wider audience, their numbers would grow because people care about that stuff, right? That plan makes the marketing director happy: “I know how to do that! Brand awareness—got it. No problem.” But there is a problem. Knowing about a thing doesn’t mean you care about a thing. Knowing about a thing doesn’t mean you’re donating to fix that thing.
Predictably, the marketing director later gets called onto the carpet: “We should be getting more donations with all the money we are spending on brand awareness.” The marketing director feels judged unfairly because, in fact, brand awareness is improved. But fundraising isn’t.
It is hard to bring new blood into the fold just by spreading the word. You can give people all the reasons that your cause is worthwhile and chronicle all the progress you make and lives you touch, and yet, most decline to make a gift. This is such a predictable outcome we have come to accept—by accepting extremely low-response rates on direct-response campaigns.
Do we have a better acquisition technique than “create brand awareness and ask for money?” We do.
We use other devices to gain the first interaction. While it’s easy to say “no, thank you” to a direct mail piece, it’s very difficult to say no to a friend, a peer or a neighbor. Don’t believe me? Ask the Girl Scouts—they sold $776 million worth of Thin Mints, S’mores and other treats that way in 2015.
What happens to someone when they write a check for the cookies, regardless of the actual reason they wrote that check? They say to themselves (unconsciously), “I am the kind of person who supports the Girl Scouts of America.”
In like manner, we often can get people to interact with our nonprofits because the nonprofit is conducting an activity we enjoy—a marathon, a polar plunge or a stair climb. And that interaction, even when not driven by love of the mission, makes the participant more open to our messages.
Other ways to get that first interaction could be volunteering for service due to peer pressure or using a nonprofit as a route to support a cause to which a person already had an affinity.
But once that first overt action is taken, here’s where life gets good again for the marketing director: After someone takes that first step to support an organization, they are much more susceptible to the messaging that the marketing department crafts—something that psychologists call "confirmation bias" kicks in. For example, when you buy a car, you start becoming more aware of advertisements for the same make and model. The number of ads for that type of car hasn't increased, but your awareness of them has. Reading the ads confirms that you have made a wise buying decision, and your liking of the car increases.
The same thing happens after we’ve donated money to a charity. Our attention goes to their messaging more readily, and the good work of the organization is seen in a much more favorable light.
And when the survey comes around asking why you donated? Well, clearly, it’s all about the mission.
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.