Save Yourself! Don’t Use ‘Donor’ as a Segment

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By Otis Fulton and Katrina VanHuss

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.

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