Save Yourself! Don’t Use ‘Donor’ as a Segment
We regularly speak with clients about how they talk to supporters to activate or “prime” their identities as people who support their organizations. We’re often asked if reminding donors that they are a “donor” or a “volunteer” is a good idea.
The answer is always the same: “Well, no.”
That’s because by labeling them merely as a “supporter,” you are defining your relationship by virtue of a transaction: donor, supporter, volunteer fundraiser, etc. It doesn’t address the values and beliefs that motivated the person to engage with the organization in the first place. Compare “donor” to “Wildlife Champion” for example. Feels cold.
But regrettably, that’s the unit of analysis that is often applied to supporters — are they a volunteer fundraiser, single donor, annual donor, regular donor, monthly donor, major donor? It’s all about the transaction.
Maybe, you’d say, calling someone a “donor” or “volunteer” acknowledges the part of one’s identity that motivates that person to give back to society, to behave in a way that benefits the greater good. And while you might be right, that puts you in competition with the million-plus other nonprofit missions through which the person could choose to express a sense of largess. Why your organization, why now? The “donor” identity attribute has nothing to do with your organization specifically. That’s why “donor” doesn’t work.
The transaction should be the beginning of your focus on the supporter, not the be-all-end-all. Unfortunately, only about 20% of first-time donors make a second gift to an organization. Increasing this number requires that we understand the values and beliefs that resulted in the initial behavior.
Supporters need to be taken on a journey that presents them with identity primes that are consistent with the organization’s goals. It’s a sophisticated strategy that requires more than a simple transactional understanding of the individual. Instead, we are suggesting you focus on the values and beliefs that the donor can express through engaging with the nonprofit.
As Francesco Ambrogetti describes in his new (highly recommended) book, “Hooked on a Feeling”:
We engage with a cause and expect it to fulfill the values and identities we choose and believe. … we want to be what we support, and really promote change.
Why is community building so important in solidifying a supporter’s identity as a warrior for (insert your cause)?
One of the things that shapes a person’s identity is the memory of their experiences. Unfortunately, events are anemic in terms of providing opportunities for participants to engage with the nonprofit and have a variety of positive, reinforcing experiences.
But, providing people with a community where they can express the beliefs and values they have in common with an organization is a different animal.
Take the community created on a Facebook group page for an event, for example. GoodUnited reports that the average group participant takes an average of 20 actions (comments or posts) during each event. That’s a lot of engagement. It should also tell us that it’s a great way to replicate the in-person fundraising experience online.
But it’s more than that. When people chat with other like-minded individuals, they feel more a part of the organization’s community. And more engaged people stick around; they are more likely to consistently fundraise, donate, show up for new events and even—wait for it—organize fundraising initiatives on their own.
In addition to reinforcing supporters’ identities, community engagement is a way for nonprofits to cast a wider net. For example, “The 2021 Giving Experience Study," new research from OneCause, reports that donors are more than twice as likely to hear about a social giving opportunity through a friend, family member, or colleague than from a nonprofit directly. That statistic alone should tell us that the future is in building communities.
Active participation in a community and a feeling of identity are mutually reinforcing. The result of this virtuous cycle is commitment, longevity, and the ever-elusive high lifetime value.
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 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 also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” 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.