5 Psychology Tips for Powerful Messaging

Khaled Allen
Khaled Allen

When you started your nonprofit or social enterprise, you probably weren’t doing it to become a marketer. After all, you’re not selling used cars! Why should you have to do anything more than tell your story with the passion you can have?

The nonprofit world needs as much savvy marketing as the for-profit sector, perhaps more. Donors suffer overexposure to every fundraising trick in the book, and the old give-money-or-this-kid-will-starve approach doesn’t work nearly as well as it once did.

The reason has a lot to do with the psychology behind how people deal with messaging. Here are five psychology-based techniques to make your messages stick with donors.

Make It Someone They Know

Remember the transformational experience that led you to starting or working in a nonprofit?

Most of your donors have never had that encounter.

Donors will give to those who seem relatable, and like it or not, that will impact what image you present of those you are helping. Save the Children would look for pictures of kids who looked as American as possible because they found that donors gave more when those images were used.

Realistically, the donors knew that their funds were helping kids in Africa or other third-world regions, but the emotional response that encouraged them to pull out their checkbook was only triggered by something as familiar as their neighbor’s son in distress.

Try to make the people you’re helping as familiar to the donor as possible. Tailor your presentation when possible to present familiar faces and images. If you’re trying to get donations to conserve a tract of land, use images of the nearby mountains when pitching to donors in Colorado and show the rolling forested hills to donors on the East Coast.

The Problem is the Problem

You have no issues getting your hands dirty to get the job done. Your donors, on the other hand, may prefer to pretend the problem doesn’t even exist.

Human trafficking is a great example of this. When the problem is on the other side of the globe, donors can be appealed to as usual.

But what if the problem is in their own backyards?

For them to contribute to an organization that combats child prostitution in their own city means that have to admit something so unsavory is occurring right under their noses and is serious enough for them to actually have to contribute to combating it.

Many people, even when admitting the existence of a problem, are so uncomfortable thinking about it they would rather ignore it. This is the same mechanism that causes procrastination: we associate extreme stress with a task, so we avoid anything to do with it, even completing it.

Make sure to target your audience carefully as people who are willing to face harsh realities or already have a stated interest in your cause. Only make a fundraising ask to those that have reached the level of engagement that is appropriate.

Upslope Trend Marketing

Another technique in nonprofit marketing is an upslope trend or positive marketing, which arose in response to donor fatigue, where those who gave money were getting overexposed to doom and gloom messages of dire catastrophes that could only be averted if they wrote a check.

Upslope trend marketing, on the other hand, paints a picture of hope or inspiration. Instead of highlighting the impending disaster, you point out the progress that has already been made, talk about how those you help are helping themselves, and ask the donor to give that extra push needed to really get the ball rolling.

Since so many social and environmental problems have proven so persistent, this approach has the effect of inspiring optimism and a sense that the donor can actually effect change. They feel like they can make a real difference, and that is a very strong incentive to give.

Make it Urgent

A common tactic in sales is to create a sense of urgency. This can be as simple as using the phrase  “limited time offer,” without specifying the actual limitations. While this might be a bit too oily for your tastes, you can still seek to create a sense of urgency in your own marketing efforts to encourage donations.

One way to do this is by creating the sense that you or your beneficiaries are ready to go and just waiting on the donor. If you sponsor business training for women, for example, tell your donors that you have ten women who are ready to go, committed, and just waiting for their program to start, and all that’s needed is the funds.

The image of often eager women standing at their doors each day, hearts yearning to get to that classroom, is a powerful motivator to a donor who may think they have all the time in the world, and who otherwise slip into inaction.

Make the Donor the Hero

Nonprofits have always been the subject of intense scrutiny because it isn’t always clear what happens to the money once it is given. A big organization can seem like a faceless entity, which doesn’t give the donor the impression that they are actually impacting a cause rather than simply writing out a check.

Small nonprofits suffer a different problem: the donor doesn’t always know that any impact is being made.

The solution is to bring the donor as close to the impact as possible. Make sure they feel like the hero by showing them exactly what they can do or have accomplished with their aid.

A common tactic for doing this is through sponsorships. Donors who sponsor children are told exactly what their money is doing, whether it is a certain number of meals or paying for school. Donors who sponsor animals or areas of land likewise can feel a more direct connection between their efforts and the impact they want to see.

Ultimately, a donor gives to your organization as an investment in a world they want to see become a reality. If they don’t feel like their investment is having any impact in creating that world, they will go elsewhere, or simply keep their money. If you can show them that the world they want to create is being born from their giving, you will have a lifelong supporter.

Neon brain (dierk schaefer/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

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