Selling Your Mission to a Divided Nation
The 2020 Presidential Election is finally (almost) behind us. What seemingly hasn’t come to an end is the anger many people feel about those on the other side of our divided nation.
In his speech last Saturday night, President-Elect Joe Biden encouraged us to “let the grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now.” As a premise, Biden added, “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify.” That’s easier said than done because it has been suggested by psychologists that conservatives and liberals perceive different realities. My “the people have spoken” may be your “they stole the election.” How do you begin to engage with people whose worldview is so different from one’s own?
Here’s why we in the nonprofit world should care. Political attitudes spill over into many aspects of our society, 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 society, it’s not always easy to find the right speed with regard 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?
That’s tough without understanding what makes both liberals and conservatives tick. You need 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 tens of millions of working-class Americans voted for Donald Trump in last week’s election. You believe they’re being duped. You’d be wrong.
Here’s why: One myth that’s been dispelled is that “people vote with their pocketbooks.” In fact, people vote for their values. It turns out that charitable giving is based on values as well. Moral values.
If charitable giving is based largely on moral 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 foundational work on this question was done by New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt developed the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT 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 many similarities and recurrent themes. Learning about MFT is like putting on a pair of eyeglasses for the first time. That blurry line that separates liberals and conservatives comes into sharp focus.
According to MFT, moral values are based on five “foundations.” They are:
- Harm/care — associated with concern about caring, nurturing and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm.
- Fairness/reciprocity — considers the notions of rights, justice and what people owe to each other.
- In-group/loyalty — concerns patriotism and self-sacrifice for one's group.
- Authority/respect — focuses on the importance of social order and respect for leadership and traditions.
- 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. Together, the first two are sometimes called the “individualizing” foundations.”
Conversely, conservatives find the last three moral foundations, which concern 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 a 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 (now known as the Freedom Caucus) hates redistribution of wealth 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: Conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals when it comes to morality. 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 binding moral foundations characterize a nonprofit, conservatives donate more to the charity than liberals. Conversely, when a nonprofit is characterized by individualizing moral foundations, liberals donate more than conservatives.
This means that 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.
When Turnkey writes copy for our clients with these principles in mind, it takes longer. The hope is that in doing so, we both raise more money and help bring our society together. We all need to play our part. Charitable missions appeal to the better angels in conservatives and liberals alike. The polarization that characterizes our communities — often even our families — is deep and painful. But we’re betting that we’re bigger than that which divides us.
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.