9 valuable short-cuts to influence nonprofit donors

By Claire Axelrad, Courtesy of the GuideStar Blog
The Brief
Occasionally, as we at RelSci wander up and down our blogroll looking for the latest and greatest in organizational health, relationship management and leadership news, we come across articles that are just too good to summarize or merely link to. Case in point, Claire Axelrod’s piece at the GuideStar blog on how to use psychology and behavioral science (specifically, neuromarketing) to influence your donors. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s struggled with donor relationships or is simply looking to boost fundraising. With GuideStar’s permission, we’ve reproduced the post in full below. Read on, and let us know what you think.

Successful nonprofit development (both fundraising and marketing) is all about persuasion. One of my favorite books is Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human. His premise is that we’re all in “sales” on a daily basis. Whether it’s simply trying to get your kids up and out the door in the morning or persuading your boss to give you a raise, you’re constantly coaxing people to induce a specific desired behavior.

Science has studied how to do this effectively, and it behooves you to follow their lead. I always look to two places for inspiration: (1) Robert Cialdini (tried and true psychology), and (2) neuromarketing (cutting edge behavioral science).

6 Universal Principles of Persuasion

First espoused in Influence, by Robert Cialdini, these principles are key to assuring your favorite social benefit organization will reap the affluence it needs to live well and prosper. The essential keys are:

1. Reciprocity People tend to return a favor, thus all those annoying address labels charities send out as a fundraising ploy. They work.

TIP: In a way, this is a version of the Golden Rule.  Do unto others as they’ve done unto us.  SO… remember to give something to your prospects and donors if you want them to reciprocate.

2. Liking People are easily persuaded by other people whom they like. You want your champions spreading the word about your cause among their friends and family.

TIP: We tend to like people we perceive to be like us. SO… you need to show your supporters how you’re like them; how the values you enact are values they share. To do so, you need to get to know your supporters better.  Familiarity fosters likeability.  This means in-person visits, phone calls and dialogues on social networks.  You need to listen; then be responsive.

TIP: Create an army of ambassadors by recruiting your board, volunteers, donors, staff and others who are connected with your cause. Ask them to share with their networks via email and social media.  Consider crowdfunding campaigns. People give most to their peers. A recent report revealed the powerful influence peer-to-peer and workplace relationships can have on campaigns. Two-thirds of respondents participated in campaigns because of a personal invitation, and 57% of those were invited by a colleague. Get your volunteers out their talking to their family, friends and co-workers!

3. Scarcity Perceived scarcity fuels demand. “Only four memberships are left” prompts action!

TIP: People stand in line to buy i-phones and Harry Potter books because they might run out! SO… you need to let people know your events may sell out; your challenge grant may run out, and your donor wall may soon be filled up.  It’s important to be perceived as precious and sought after.  You must do what you can to make your organization and cause beloved.

4. Authority People will tend to obey authority figures.  I recently watched a video of a well-dressed man in a suit jay-walking.  Everyone on the street corner followed.  When he wore a sweatshirt, no one followed. That’s the principle of authority at work.

TIP: If you have an expert or celebrity endorse you, or sign your fundraising letter, often it lifts response.  In fact, thanks to the information now readily available through social media, peer-peer information and expert points of view have soared to the top of the trust pyramid. SO… target your best influencers, think about who can provide what I call “The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” testimonials and make sure your online presence is your prospect’s reassuring friend. People need to be reassured they made a good decision in supporting you.

5. Social Proof People will do what other people are doing. That’s why it’s great to show who is taking action for your cause – others are likely to conform.

TIP: People decide what’s right for them based on what others like them are doing.  It’s a decision-making short cut. SO… you need to let board members know what other board members are giving, tell banks that other banks are sponsoring you, and so on. And, of course, if you’ve got great Yelp reviews and FB likes, by all means promote them.

6. Commitment and Consistency If people commit to an idea or goal, they’re more likely to follow through.  It’s why pledging is a great option for people who aren’t ready to take action.

TIP: People will continue to do what they’ve already done. SO… you must remind donors they’ve supported you before; then ask them to continue. Foster a habit of giving to you. This is why monthly giving programs are so terrific. Plus consider enrolling folks in a legacy society; get them committed before they revoke their bequest!

Each principle is a map of sorts – a guide down the path towards “yes.” 

There are other types of short-cuts you can use as well.

3 Behavioral Neuroscience Triggers

Our brains are hard-wired to make decisions based on visual and emotional content. Neuroscience is really a shortcut to getting to “yes.”

To understand how this works, the first thing you must know is that your brain is split into two main sections: new and old.Your new brain controls thinking. Your old brain controls behavior, decision-making and emotions.

Guess where decision-making happens?  In the old brain! So data doesn’t influence it. Images and stories do.

So why not use the way our brains are wired to drive results – clicks, shares, comments and donations?

Here are three ways to appeal to human emotions using visuals:

1. Use facial cues People are hard-wired from birth to react to faces. Babies look to their mothers for non-verbal cues that set the tone for their interaction.

TIP: Supporters look for pain to see if someone needs help; to joy to see if someone received help. It’s why you see photos
of emaciated children and sad puppies in fundraising appeals, and photos of smiling, happy people in thank you letters and impact reports.

2. Help people mirror the experience Have you ever seen someone accidentally cut themselves, then hear yourself exclaiming “ouch?” This reaction is caused by mirror neurons in the brain. When you see pictures or video of an action, your mirror neurons make you feel like you’re actually experiencing what you’re watching.

TIP: When you use video it’s easy for folks to imagine being in the shoes of those your organization helps. If they see someone crying, they want to cry too. This helps you trigger the phenomenon of “there but for the grace of the lord go I,” which plays to people’s empathy. When you connect with people on a gut level, it makes them want to act.

3. Remind people of their memories Triggering old memories is similar to triggering mirror neurons. It taps into people’s emotions. They remember how they felt then, which acts as a shortcut to how you want them to feel now.

TIP: Marketers use images of happy families to persuade you to buy their product and be just like them. Nonprofits might do the same to persuade supporters to help a family stay together. Or nonprofits might show kids graduating from college to remind folks of a feeling of accomplishment; they hope you’ll want to bring to bring this same experience to disadvantaged youth.

Using these 9 influence short-cuts intelligently is neither sleazy nor Machiavellian. 

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Liking
  3. Scarcity
  4. Authority
  5. Social Proof
  6. Commitment/Consistency
  7. Facial Cues
  8. Mirroring
  9. Memories

Your ends are not evil. You’re just trying to make the best of limited resources and do what you can to cut through the clutter. People are busy today. They’re swamped with information. If you can use short-cuts to grab their attention and persuade them to act, your organization can benefit significantly.

Remember that most people want to make our world a better and more caring place.
Influencing people to do something positive they’re already predisposed to do – something that matches their values and makes them feel good – is a fine thing.


RelSci helps create competitive advantage for leading corporate, financial and nonprofit organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. ​​​​​

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