Uniquely Me: 8 Ways Nonprofits Can Use Sociology and Psychology to Improve Their Fundraising Campaigns


“Who am I?” by Hans-Peter Erb (professor of social psychology) and Susanne Gebert (biologist), an article found in the March/April 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind magazine, explores the personality traits and cultural phenomenon that determine how much value an individual places on feeling unique or different from other individuals.

The studies Erb and Gebert reference throughout the article found significant associations between certain personality traits and a need for people to feel that they are unique individuals. In particular, high levels of extroversion, creativity, and openness, as well as low levels of neuroticism, frequently co-occur with a need to feel unique.

But these individual traits are not the only influencers tied to differences in a need to feel, well – different. Cultural phenomenon are also at play. Specifically, a person coming from a more collectivist society (usually Eastern countries) is typically less concerned with individuality and uniqueness than a person raised in an individualist society (think American and other Western cultures).


Erb and Gebert’s findings got me thinking: how can individual differences in the need to feel unique be used to more carefully tailor donor appeals and nonprofit content? As noted by Erb and Gebert, for-profit advertising has already used such cultural differences to their benefit. For example, studies have found that American ads are more likely to emphasize how a product can make a person stand out from the crowd. The trope of “standing out” is so common, in fact, that a cursory analysis of American magazine and television advertisements will likely yield multiple examples of this difference.

Consider, for instance, this American Lexus commercial:

The transcript of this commercial clearly displays the Western need for individuality and uniqueness: Some things are designed to draw crowds. Others are designed to leave them behind. Introducing the 2014 Lexus IS F Sport. A car designed with one purpose. To stand apart. It’s your move.

So for-profit companies like Lexus have already used this cultural and psychological knowledge to their benefit – now just how, exactly, can it help non-profits? To fully understand the answer to that question, we must first understand who OUR audience is, which will obviously be different for each nonprofit. For more information on discerning your own audience, see my previous blog post on creating “audience-awareness” in your content.

After figuring out your audience, you can use that knowledge to craft stronger content more closely aligned to your audience. Think about who exactly your audience is. Think as locally as possible – your nonprofit might be American, but perhaps it appeals to a specific area of the United States where Eastern immigrants are more common. Or maybe your cause is one that draws a lot of introverts or extroverts. Only from analysis and experience can you determine the unique personality of your organization.

If your audience consists of people who like to “stand out,” think about crafting your content to fit that need:

1. Ensure that easily accessible sharing buttons can be found on all pages of your non-profit’s website, including places where donors contribute to your cause. facebookPeople with a need to stand out may enjoy displaying their own unique contributions to bettering the world, thereby making your cause their cause.

Wheels for Wishes

2. Consider allowing users to earn unique rewards and badges through their personal fundraising campaigns. Blackbaud’s TeamRaiser system, for instance has an option to create ‘milestones’ for your users, and this is where your nonprofit can really use its creativity. For instance, you might create a “1K Club” badge once a user reaches $1,000 indonations. Consider using a resource like Open Badges to easily create unique badges, and, again, ensure that users are able to easily share their accomplishments on social media platforms. To provide a great example of fundraising badges:

An example of fundraising badges from the American Diabetes Association

An example of fundraising badges from the American Diabetes Association

3. If you’re using a fundraising platform like TeamRaiser, allow users to personalize their fundraising campaigns. That might mean allowing them to honor a loved one via their campaign, or just enabling users to have better control of the visual feel of their page so that they may select the colors, fonts, and images that reflect their own personalities.

4. Your nonprofit is special, so make donors feel special by highlighting the unique things your nonprofit does with donors’ money. In other words, why should donors feel proud that they contributed to your organization in lieu of a similar cause? You Heifermight even consider linking the donor’s contribution to a specific, tangible use; as an example of this approach, look to the highly successful Heifer International, which allows their donors to purchase anything from a beehive to a cow to benefit people in developing countries. Not all organizations will have something as unique as a cow to show off, but there is nonetheless a reason your nonprofit exists amongst thousands of other nonprofits.

On the other hand, if your audience consists primarily of people who don’t mind blending in with the crowd, think about crafting your content to fit that need:

1. In your appeals and social media posts, emphasize the greater good that your American Red Crossnonprofit is doing, and how donor contributions improve the collective whole of society or a community. 

2. Ensure that your nonprofit is honoring donor privacy. While we often hear about the need to make donors feel like heroes, not all donors want to be put in the spotlight. For some people, public acknowledgment of gifts may generate feelings of embarrassment rather than pride. Therefore, it is important to make sure donors have the option to remain anonymous if they wish to do so. You might even want to add a simple checkbox on your donation form that donors can select if they wish to keep their privacy:

Alice Peck

3. Craft sample donation appeals that emphasize your cause and downplay the participant’s involvement with the fundraising event. This one might sound a bit confusing at first, but the idea behind it is simple. Let’s say that someone is participating in a long bike tour to raise money for your organization. Often, when we send sample letters to these participants, the letters might begin by stressing the ambitious goals of the participant: “I will be embarking on a 200-mile journey, riding my bike to help….” But, again, not everyone will want to be put in the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have just as much opportunity to fundraise. Instead, try beginning the letter by highlighting the organization and the cause it benefits.

4. Make sure that your donors feel that by donating to your organization, they are part of a community. While you might not want to feature specific donors on your organization’s social media pages, you might want to continuously update followers on the progress they have made towards a greater goal. For example, you might say something like, “Thanks to our generous donors, we are now 60% of the way towards our goal of raising $100,000 for the __________ community!” In addition, giving regular news updates about your cause will ensure donors feel that they are a part of your cause and the people involved with it.

Certainly, these observations are not universal. Not all introverts are unconcerned with their own individuality, and not all extroverts feel the need to stand out. Similarly, all Asians do not dedicate themselves to the selfless collective, and not all Americans are so self-interested. To interpret these findings as set-in-stone rules would be to place unfair stereotypes on individuals who differ from these associations. However, in general. such correlations are common, as the authors of the article argue.

Because no audience is entirely homogenous, a mixture of techniques is probably best. Therefore, we can ensure that our campaigns appeal to everyone our content may reach, and in doing so – reach out to a broader donor base. For one final example, look for instance, at the American Lung Association, which skillfully highlights both the greater good and the personal on their, “How Does My Donation Help?” page:

American Lung

What does your nonprofit do to appeal to its unique audience?


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