If you’re trying to figure out the psychology behind why donors give to charity, there is no one answer to rule them all. Donors are individuals, and they give to nonprofits for a number of reasons particular to themselves. But donors are also human beings and, just like the rest of us, they share common psychological traits that a fundraising professional would do well to understand.
By looking into the psychology behind why people donate to charity and applying those lessons to your fundraising and donor communications, you can help your donors activate their innate altruistic tendencies. Bringing psychology to your fundraising is not about tricking people, it’s about connecting your work to a donor’s sense of self and connecting their contribution to its impact on the community or the world at large.
1. Donor Identities: Help Your Donors Express Who They Are
In Chapter 5 of Neon One’s 2022 Donor Report, titled “Why Do Our Donors Give?,” we tackled the question of donor identities. Drawn from the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy’s philanthropic psychology course, the six primary identities provide fundraisers insight into the different ways donors view themselves and how their relationships to those views influence their giving. Using identity-based fundraising, fundraisers can encourage donors to give as an expression of who they are.
The six primary donor identities are:
These are the traits most innate and closely held to a person. For instance, a person’s identity as a woman could strongly influence their giving, while another person could be driven by their attachment to personal fitness. Unlike the other identities listed below, a person’s relationship to other people does not factor into their personal identity.
This is an identity that exists in relation to another person or group. A person’s identity as a parent in relationship to their children could have a strong influence on their desire to donate to or get involved with a topic. Take a look at the famous nonprofit, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.). By tapping into their identities as mothers, this group completely changed America’s attitude toward drunk driving.
A person’s sense of belonging to a certain group can end up being a core part of their identity. These could be informal groups like a neighborhood Facebook group, or more formal groups like a religious denomination. Being a military veteran is a great example of group identity as it often carries with it a strong sense of solidarity between fellow veterans.
If a person is a rostered member of an organization, that identification can be a strong driver of behavior. Political parties are a great example of organizations with a strong in-group association, as are churches. Organizational identity differs from group identity in that groups can be informal, while organizations are, by definition, formal bodies. It’s the difference between saying “I am a Lutheran” and “I am a member of St. Ignatius Lutheran Church.”
Regional, National, and International Identity
City, state, and regional identities can be very strong. For a fun example in your own life, ask anyone from Kansas City, Texas, the Carolinas, or Tennessee their opinions on barbecue. National identity can, likewise, be a potent aspect of a person’s identity, but so can their international identity as someone who is connected to the struggles of people in other countries.
When appealing to a donor using an identity-based fundraising approach, the key feelings to activate are autonomy, competency, and connectedness to your organization.
A gift that allows a donor to express their identity will conjure the kind of warm-and-fuzzy feelings that will stick in their memory far more strongly than the details of the gift itself.
Ideally, your fundraising strategy will cover donors across numerous different identity groups. This is where donor segmentation—the practice of tweaking and targeting your message to different groups based on your donor data—will be critical to getting the right message in front of the right donor at the right time. To learn more about donor segmentation, check out our blog post, 4 Donor Segmentation Strategies That Drive Results.
2. Identifiable Victim Effect: Tell The Story of One Person, Not Many
The identifiable victim effect states that a person is far more likely to feel empathy and a desire to help a specific person than they are a large group of people—even when that single person and the larger group are suffering from the same problem.
This might seem counterintuitive when it comes to describing your nonprofit’s impact. There is an understandable urge to focus on the greater impact your organization’s work is making in the community. After all, a nonprofit organization that helped only a single person would be far less effective than a nonprofit that helped hundreds or thousands of people.
But, while statistics certainly have their place in fundraising, they are not the most effective way to motivate your donors. Instead, focusing on your nonprofit’s impact on a single person (or animal!) will do far more to elicit your donor’s empathy and inspire them to give. When designing your next fundraising campaign, focus on a single recipient and dig into their story. When in doubt, always choose story over statistics.
You can also lean into this strategy when describing the impact of a donor’s previous gift. Tie the effect of their donation to a specific program (i.e. since you gave, we have held five free after-school classes for at-risk youth.) If a donor knows exactly what impact their gift had and who that gift benefitted, they will be more likely to give again.
3. Psychic Numbing: Don’t Overwhelm Donors With Big Numbers
Psychic numbing and the identifiable victim effect are two sides of the same coin. Psychic numbing describes how people become psychologically indifferent when faced with the problems experienced by large groups of people. While it’s a bit cliche, one of the best illustrations of their effect comes from noted mass-suffering-architect Joseph Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
As we touched on in the previous section, using broad statistics about your nonprofit’s impact in your messaging to donors and prospective donors will not inspire them to give as you would hope. To inspire more giving, always look for opportunities where you can describe a gift’s impact on one person versus its impact on hundreds.
But the phenomenon of psychic numbing doesn’t just apply to demonstrating your nonprofit’s impact; it also applies to stating the scope of the problem your organization is trying to address.
If you make the problem seem too large or difficult to conquer, it will make donors less likely to give.
In the 1997 paper Insensitivity to Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing, researchers found that subjects placed less value on saving lives as the number of lives at risk increased.
In other words, if 100 lives can be saved out of 2,000 people at risk, this is deemed more valuable than 100 lives being saved when 20,000 were at risk.
Similarly, another study outlined in that same paper found that donors expected the minimum number of lives that a medical treatment could save for a fixed amount of money should be higher if more lives are being threatened. The amount that people were willing to give did not scale to match the magnitude of the problem at hand.
When communicating with your donors, make sure you rightsize the scope of the problems you’re discussing so that they feel achievable. Of course, your nonprofit is probably trying to tackle some pretty big problems! But when discussing your work, break those problems down into smaller subproblems. If you’re working with at-risk youth in Chicago, for instance, detail the challenges facing a single school rather than the whole city.
One nonprofit sector that deals every day with the effects of psychic numbing is environmental groups. There is no problem that is bigger and seemingly more difficult to solve than climate change. You can learn more about the challenges facing environmental nonprofits in our blog post, Why Don’t Donors Give to Environmental Nonprofits?
4. Martyrdom Effect: Asking Donors to Put in Effort Can Increase Giving
The identifiable victim effect and psychic numbing are two pretty heavy topics to discuss. The martyrdom effect, on the other hand, is a little more light-hearted—despite what that overly dramatic title might suggest.
The martyrdom effect describes the phenomenon wherein people feel better about something if they had to undergo adversity to achieve it. A great example of the martyrdom effect in action is the Ice Bucket Challenge, the ALS Foundation fundraiser that went mega-viral in 2014 that raised almost $42 million from nearly 740,000 new donors in a single month. Doing something uncomfortable, like pouring a bucket of ice water over one’s head before giving, makes people feel better about donating than they would if they had made a donation and stayed dry.
Now, employing the martyrdom effect doesn’t mean that you can simply ask your donors to pour a bucket of ice water over their heads and call it a day, but it should inspire you to get creative with your fundraising.
A charity 5k is a common example of putting the martyrdom effect to good use. Participants will likely be more eager to participate in your fundraiser—and pay an entrance fee—when there’s a prospect of running several miles to challenge them. You might also find that your runners are more willing to engage their networks to encourage more donations ahead of the race. The accomplishment of running the 5k will motivate them to do more than they would otherwise.
Peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns are prime candidates for putting the martyrdom effect into action. Participating in one of these campaigns and raising money from family, friends, and connections is hard work. Thanks to the martyrdom effect, that hard work will benefit your organization. Consider how you can motivate your existing supporters to sign up for a peer-to-peer campaign, then parlay those good feelings into continued involvement.
Lastly, the martyrdom effect can be utilized by tapping into one of the feelings we discussed earlier in this piece: donor autonomy. Try giving your donors a choice as to what program their donation supports. This could apply to the entirety of their donation or to a fixed percentage. Even the simple act of choosing between different programs can give donors the feeling that they have put in effort, which will garner good feelings in its wake.
5. Goal Proximity: Help Donors Help You Get Over The Line
Goal proximity is the psychological effect in which donors are more likely to donate to your campaign the closer you are to reaching your goal. You can take advantage of goal proximity in a couple of different ways.
First, you can set multi-tiered goals for your campaign that allows you to send out “we’re almost there” messages at several different points. Once your initial goal is reached, you can start encouraging people to donate towards your second goal, then your third, and so on. You can also set goals surrounding different metrics like 1the number of new supporters versus total dollars raised.
Second, you can focus on gifts from your most committed supporters first, knowing that the goal proximity effect will help carry your campaign over the line as you approach your goal later on. Even better, you can create messaging to encourage your committed supporters to signal-boost your campaign beyond the time of their initial donation.
With this strategy, you are putting new supporters in a position where they are more likely to give—and to feel good about doing so!
Giving Makes Donors Feel Good
Time and time again, studies of the human brain have found a neurological basis for altruism.
People are hardwired to give their time and their money to good causes because doing so makes them feel good!
By applying these psychological principles to your donor communications, you are helping to frame your organization’s work so it will connect most deeply with your supporters. To learn more about connecting with your donors and applying data-based insights to your communications, check out the Donor Report.