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.
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a book, Dollar Dash, on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.