It’s All About the Mission Donor


By Katrina VanHuss & Otis Fulton

Conventional wisdom says that when people support nonprofits, “it’s all about the mission.” Nonprofit CEOs and other C-suite executives say this a lot. Their supporters are connected to a cure for cancer, global warming, humane treatment of animals, etc. And when you ask constituents why they do what they do for nonprofits, this is exactly what they will say. It’s all about the kids, homeless animals, clean air and water.

This leads CEOs to the logical conclusion that if they could just spread the word to a wider audience, their numbers would grow because people care about that stuff, right? That plan makes the marketing director happy: “I know how to do that! Brand awareness—got it. No problem.” But there is a problem. Knowing about a thing doesn’t mean you care about a thing. Knowing about a thing doesn’t mean you’re donating to fix that thing.

Predictably, the marketing director later gets called onto the carpet: “We should be getting more donations with all the money we are spending on brand awareness.” The marketing director feels judged unfairly because, in fact, brand awareness is improved. But fundraising isn’t.

It is hard to bring new blood into the fold just by spreading the word. You can give people all the reasons that your cause is worthwhile and chronicle all the progress you make and lives you touch, and yet, most decline to make a gift. This is such a predictable outcome we have come to accept—by accepting extremely low-response rates on direct-response campaigns.

Do we have a better acquisition technique than “create brand awareness and ask for money?” We do.


We use other devices to gain the first interaction. While it’s easy to say “no, thank you” to a direct mail piece, it’s very difficult to say no to a friend, a peer or a neighbor. Don’t believe me? Ask the Girl Scouts—they sold $776 million worth of Thin Mints, S’mores and other treats that way in 2015.

What happens to someone when they write a check for the cookies, regardless of the actual reason they wrote that check? They say to themselves (unconsciously), “I am the kind of person who supports the Girl Scouts of America.”

In like manner, we often can get people to interact with our nonprofits because the nonprofit is conducting an activity we enjoy—a marathon, a polar plunge or a stair climb. And that interaction, even when not driven by love of the mission, makes the participant more open to our messages.

Other ways to get that first interaction could be volunteering for service due to peer pressure or using a nonprofit as a route to support a cause to which a person already had an affinity.

But once that first overt action is taken, here’s where life gets good again for the marketing director: After someone takes that first step to support an organization, they are much more susceptible to the messaging that the marketing department crafts—something that psychologists call “confirmation bias” kicks in.

For example, when you buy a car, you start becoming more aware of advertisements for the same make and model. The number of ads for that type of car hasn’t increased, but your awareness of them has. Reading the ads confirms that you have made a wise buying decision, and your liking of the car increases.

The same thing happens after we’ve donated money to a charity. Our attention goes to their messaging more readily, and the good work of the organization is seen in a much more favorable light.

And when the survey comes around asking why you donated? Well, clearly, it’s all about the mission.