Whereas a for-profit business may be selling products or services, a nonprofit organization is generally selling a cause or an ideal. And it takes a little something extra to convince people to give up their money without receiving anything quantifiable in return. In either case, however, both groups need to consider their communication and understand the psychology driving their consumer’s mindset.
How do you get people to give?
The driving force behind at least 99% of a nonprofit’s marketing efforts is to encourage people to give. The question that should be asked, however, is what should a nonprofit ask a donor to give – time or money? Believe it or not, there can be a marked difference in the amount of money a nonprofit can raise if they get this one question right.
This question has been researched in both field and lab experiments across different populations, detailed in “The Happiness of Giving: The Time-Ask Effect“. The overwhelming result has been that by first asking people about giving time (as opposed to an initial ask for money), those people will be more inclined to give more money when they actually do contribute financially. Note that they don’t even have to give of their time for this to manifest — the very act of them thinking about whether they will volunteer is often enough for this effect to be realized.
Why is this so?
The explanation for this behavior hinges on the hypothesis that time and money activate different beliefs and mindsets in us — an emotional mindset versus a quantifiable, value-maximizing mindset.
Time = Experiences
We tend to measure time not only in seconds and hours, but in experiences. Experiences come with rich emotional associations. In addition, people prefer to give their time when a cause has a high personal significance – meaning that volunteering is tied to our identity and emotional wellness. Therefore, considering giving of your time activates your goals of emotional well-being and personal significance in this world. In other words, when people are asked if they would consider giving of their time, they instinctively start to think about what the experience means to them. It triggers their emotional mindset.
Even though time is a finite resource, the value of a person’s time is more ambiguous than the set value of money. Consider: if given the choice to spend the weekend having a family picnic in the park or working overtime in the office, it is up to you and only you to determine which is a good use of your time. And that boils down to what the experience is worth to you. Nobody else can tell you that; it’s purely subjective.
Money = Scrutiny
On the other hand, money is more clearly quantified, in economic terms. We tend to have a higher level of scrutiny when it comes to giving of our money: What will I get in return? What will my money be used for? How exactly will it help fill a need? Is it simply going to pad the pockets of the CEO? When we part with money, we demand 100% satisfaction, don’t we? If we buy a product, and it turns out to be defective, we will demand our money back, right? We are more careful with how we part with our money, and we are more critical of its worth when we do part with it. When we think about money, we activate a quantifiable, value-maximizing mindset.
The research suggests that even though we seem to have a tighter grip on our money, once emotions are “activated” by an ask for time, a subsequent ask for money seems to be connected to that initial emotional mindset. And therefore, people are more willing to give (and in higher amounts). Thus, if you want to increase donations to your organization, you should ask people for their time, not just their money.
Of course this is not a magic bullet for instant riches; it’s to be put into practice as part of a long-term strategy to attract more funds over time. Nor is it an underhanded way of manipulating people — it’s simply something to understand about what makes people tick. Basically it comes down to: if people are engaged, they act — even if they are only engaged emotionally in their subconscious.
How to apply this knowledge to your nonprofit’s marketing
So, what should your takeaway be from this? In your marketing materials, the goal should be to engage people emotionally first, before even asking for money. This may be, as in the study, asking plainly, “Would you consider volunteering your time?” and having them actively respond. Or it may be woven more subtly throughout your strategy, such as creating an emotional connection through displaying stories and testimonials of the people you’ve helped. And remember: before you can expect people to give anything, you must first prove to them why you are worthy of giving to. Nonprofit marketing should be trustworthy — professional, but not so flashy that it causes people to wonder if you’re frivolously spending money on unnecessary bells and whistles instead of on your true cause.
This study is yet another confirmation that emotional connections are what you want to strive for. Emotional associations can and will influence people’s behavior. The lesson for both nonprofits and for-profits alike is that emotional connections are more powerful than facts, figures, or a list of fancy features could ever be on their own.