Charity, in any form, is one of the nobler aspects of the human condition. In this age of contention, violence and hatred among our species, the spirit of giving — be it financial support, volunteerism or advocacy — should assure us that all is not lost.
However, the act of charity is as organic as almost any human behavior, savory or unsavory. It is often the result of some combination of intrinsic motivation, which is triggered by concern for others’ well-being, and extrinsic motivation, which is triggered by the perception of personal reward or benefit resulting from the giving act.
So where do we put recognition?
For decades, professional fundraisers have assumed the positive value of one of those extrinsic motivators, recognition — and its first cousin prestige — as a tactic in charitable appeals.
Whether public (buildings and programs named after a donor, names listed in a newsletter or website, bricks in a wall of honor, etc.) or private (certificates, awards, phone calls from the organization, etc.) recognition has long been used as a technique for campaign success and donor retention.
Kiki Koutmeridou is a behavioral scientist who studies the role of human behaviors on charitable activity. She confirms that recognition, either private or public, generally tends to improve giving, across KPIs that include response rate, average gift amount and donor retention, among others.
She points to yet another behavior known as image motivation when studying the effects of recognition on giving.
“Image motivation refers to an individual’s tendency to be influenced by others’ perceptions of them,” Dr. Koutmeridou says. “In short, the desire to be liked and respected by others.”
However, she points out, recognition as a marketing strategy also may be ineffective under some conditions.
For example, some donors avoid recognition to prevent unwanted charity solicitations while others prefer anonymity for religious reasons. Other studies suggest that recognition is ineffective if the organization fails to demonstrate that the need is great or the donor’s gift or time would not be well-spent.
Recognition and moral identity
Knowing when and why recognition can be used as an effective fundraising tool can be tricky. Much of its effectiveness depends on the donor’s own sense of his/her moral identity.
Moral identity has two dimensions. Behavioral scientists define these dimensions as internalization, the degree to which moral traits are central to the self (“I am moral because this is who I am”) and symbolization, the degree to which moral traits are reflected in the donor’s actions (“I am moral because this is what I do”). Most humans exhibit both to some extent.
Dr. Koutmeridou cites a study showing that recognition increased charitable behavior among donors whose internalization was low and whose symbolization was high.
Conversely, the same study demonstrated that recognition did not impact charitable behavior among donors whose internalization was high and whose symbolization was high, or among those whose symbolization was low, regardless of internalization.
According to Dr Koutmeridou, recognition as a social driver can be effective for donors who believe their actions determine their moral identity (symbolization) and subsequent social reputation. However, donors who believe their moral identity is internally defined (internalization) or, in any case, who do not define their morality by their actions, are not swayed by either public or private recognition. In fact, they may be negatively affected.
Furthermore, it is possible that these donors, who define their morality by who they are and not by what they do, might be among a charity’s most valuable. Consider the classic case of a $25/year donor, quietly and anonymously supporting a cause for decades, who leaves an organization a surprising bequest in her will.
It would perhaps behoove fundraisers to identify donors exhibiting internalization and motivate them with strategies other than recognition.
Big data, the fundraising market, and the role of behavior science
For fundraisers, understanding human behaviors that drive giving is no longer a luxury. Big data alone cannot carry the burden. Data-analytics are powerful profilers and predictors, but in the end can only measure donor behaviors, not explain them. Today’s strategists and creatives must take the insights of behavioral science into account in order to keep pace with a new generation of giving.
Millions of 501(c)3 organizations are registered in the U.S. with thousands of mission messages and appeals crossing our desks and screens every year. The number of channels in which charities can be marketed is exploding. Fundraising is an increasingly complex machine with a growing number of moving parts.
However, one part of the machine that does not and will not change across media or message is human behavior and the organic drivers that stimulate it. The organizations that understand and leverage these drivers will clearly find an edge in an increasingly competitive fundraising landscape.
For more on Kiki Koutmeridou and her research, click here.