Constructing a donor identity: an NRA case study

October 19, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


Who people are is an integral part of why they give. Your most loyal donors are the ones who wouldn’t dream of leaving, because being a member/supporter/donor to you is a part of who they are.

Some of these are simple. Disease charities can segment by whether the disease directly impacted the donor. For animal charities, it might be cat people and dog people. For religious organizations, well, do I even need to complete that sentence?

But what if you don’t have faith, or cute animals, or a direct disease connection?

What if you have guns?

From the outside, the impact of the NRA seems like it would be small. Gun owners are a minority of the US population (up to 86 million owners, depending on the study ). Of those, about five million are NRA members, according to the NRA. Even of those members, 74% say they favor background checks for private gun sales (which the NRA opposes).

Or put another way, a minority of a minority of a minority opposes background checks for private gun sales and 84% of Americans support them. But the NRA has done an outstanding job of unifying and activating its membership.

Recent research by Matthew Lacombe talks about how this happened. He analyzed the editorials in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine from 1930 to 2008 and found:

“The editorials show that for decades, the NRA has cultivated an image of gun owners as having a particular set of positive characteristics: They are reputable, law-abiding, honest, patriotic citizens who are self-sufficient and love freedom. And gun owners are presented as different from several distinct out-groups, especially politicians, the media and lawyers.

Over this period, nearly three-quarters of NRA editorials framed gun regulation as attacking gun owners’ identities. Rather than using technical, evidence-based appeals to argue that gun control won’t reduce crime, the NRA argues that gun control disarms law-abiding citizens so that they’re unable to defend themselves and their country.”

This consistent message shapes the viewpoints of the NRA membership. Lacombe think looked at letters to the editor about gun control over the same period and found:

“Pro-gun letters consistently mimic the NRA’s political appeals. Nearly two-thirds of the letters use identity language that speaks proudly of “us gun owners,” describing them as patriotic, courageous and so on, in contrast to “those anti-gunners,” described as radicals, elitists and the like. Most of these letters talk about how gun control would hurt gun owners’ lifestyles and values. The mimicry remains consistent over the decades; as the NRA’s editorials change, the pro-gun letters change, as well, echoing the contemporary themes and descriptions of both gun owners and gun-regulation advocates.”

How about those who support gun control? He found that fewer than half of anti-gun letters used identity language. When they did, it was usually casting the NRA as a villain; fewer than a quarter of letters talked about their authors’ identity.

I’m not here to talk about the politics of this one way or the other (as this is a professional forum; catch up with me at DMA or Bridge and I’m happy to talk!). But there are lessons that comes from this case study that can help us all:

Identity is malleable and aspirational. The technique here is a strong one: create an in-group and infuse it with consistent positive characteristics. Here, it’s patriotic, freedom-loving, safe, self-sufficient, etc. Everyone likes to be positive things. Through repetition, they stick.

Associating a cause with an already existing identity also helps accrue the existing benefits from that identity. You’ve heard of people talking about motherhood and apple pie; consider what MADD has done. During debates in the 80’s on drunk driving legislation, Rep. James Howard was said to remark “How do the mothers feel?”, referring both to the organization and to the greater concept of mothers.

Identity is powerful. An identity becomes a shield against outside attacks. Whether it is statistics and information or the high emotion after a tragedy like Las Vegas, it’s no match for that core identity. When you build up an identity, it becomes something that one would have to pry from your cold, dead… you know the rest.

Social distance matters. When you have an identity that is part of a whole, an attack on one is an attack on all. On the other side, when you are deeply outraged, but have social distance from the victims and locale, outrage will dissipate in favor of things that hit closer to home.

Shared identity trumps shared demography. You could easily stereotype the gun owner as white, male, rural, and in the South or West. And those are the areas mostly likely to own guns. But if you think of other groups that have a similar demography, there isn’t nearly the same political capital.

What the NRA has done is focused its acquisition efforts on those who share its identity and values. By offering gun safety courses, they find people who are either gun owners or likely gun owners.  They are also people who who aspire to be safe and self-sufficient with their guns, fitting their identity.

Us matters, but so does them.


For an identity to have importance, it must be something that not everyone has. An appeal letter that starts out “As a fellow less-hairy ape” probably doesn’t work that well, because that’s all of us.

You can think of this in terms of sports teams – if you love the Red Sox, you must hate the Yankees and vice versa. (Or you could hate them both.) Having a common enemy unifies the home team.

And riling up people works. In a FiveThirtyEight study of the most disliked teams, each region’s most disliked two teams also had top-10 attendance. They concluded that “ownerships don’t care whether you watch a team to root for or against it – they just care that you watch.”

For your villain, you can pick the opposite characteristics from your identity. NRA editorials used politicians, the media, and lawyers at their enemies and paint them as out-of-touch, radicals, and anti-American.  But it could be any group who opposes the work you do.

So discovering your donors’ identities is part of the game. Building them up and tying yourself to them is the other part. And clearly, this isn’t just a tactic that works for cute animals or kids.


Nudging toward donations: a Nobel pursuit

October 12, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


Richard Thaler just won the Nobel Prize in Economics*.  This is momentous for two reasons:

  1. He is the first economics Nobel Prize winner to have a Bacon number of 2: he was in The Big Short with Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, and Steve Carrell, who were all in Crazy. Stupid. Love. with Kevin Bacon.**

  1. It’s continued recognition of the behavioral science revolution in economics.

Traditional economics courses say we assume that all people are rational actors who know what they want and work always to maximize their utility.

I remember sitting in econ wondering if my professors had met any actual people.  Assuming all people are always rational is like being asked to figure out how many cows fit in a railway car and assuming that all cows are cubes.***  Yes, it’s easier.  Yes, you will get an answer.  No, that answer won’t reflect reality.  And it will greatly vex the cows.

Kahneman, Tversky, Thaler, and their ilk exploded this notion.  They show that people are not just irrational but, to use Dan Ariely’s great book title, predictably irrational.  That is, we have biases hardwired into our systems.

This is a good thing.  If we were always looking out for our own self-interest, we would never donor to someone we would never meet.  And we certainly would make sure that when we passed, all of our money went to those who shared out genetic materials, not to plant trees in whose shade we will not sit.

So let’s honor Richard Thaler today by learning what biases will cause people to donate more and more joyfully.  Here are a few pieces from us here at DonorVoice:

May you nudge in good health!

* Technically, there is no Nobel Prize in Economics, as it was not one of the five prizes endowed by Alfred Nobel – the Swedish National Bank endowed it in the 60s.  However, the Nobel Foundation embraced the endowment of the prize, the laureates are announced at the same time, and they get the award at the same ceremony.  So if it bothers you that I refer to this as the Nobel Prize in Economics, may I suggest that, somewhere on the Internet, someone is pronouncing “gif” wrong and you might want to correct them first?

** I didn’t actually check the filmography of all of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics, but can we agree that this feels true?

Also, there are other ways to make the connection, such as that Brad Pitt was in The Big Short and Sleepers.

*** I grew up in Wisconsin.  I have many cow analogies.


Pareto was a wuss

October 5, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


Vilfredo Fedrico Damaso Pareto is best known now for the 80/20 rule. He originally said 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of the population. Now this 80/20 rule is used in healthcare (20% of patients use 80% of resources), criminal justice (20% of criminals, 80% of crimes), income distribution, and so on.

And we use it in fundraising. Mid-major donor gurus will talk about how 20% of donors give 80% of gifts. They’ll also talk about Pareto-squared: 4% of donors give 64% of gifts.

It’s a simple and memorable talking point. But is it true?

Not quite.

Enter the data from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project. In fact, the average organizations giving is even more skewed, with only four percent of donors giving 76% of donations and the top third of donors giving 96% of revenues.

33% of donors give 96% of gifts
(click on the picture to enlarge;
thanks to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project.)

So it isn’t the 80/20 rule any more. It’s the 76/4 rule. Or the 96/33 rule. Either way, giving is more concentrated among larger gifts than even those who focused on larger gifts thought.

What does this mean for those of us who get the gifts under $250 that represent a sliver of the pie? Is it time for us to retire and take up golf?

Not hardly.* After all, those $250 plus donors weren’t born above-average donors – they were made. Direct marketing acquired and cultivated these donors in most cases. Even for major donors, direct marketers often loosen the pickle jar for major gift officers.

That doesn’t mean we can continue business as usual, however. You are probably wasting your time if you are re-acquiring a lapsed $15 donor who has no cause connection with a premium, for example. See, for example, what the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation did to refocus on their best donors here.

Any potential donor of significance is likely to:

  • Have an identity that lines up with your most profitable identity. They or someone they love suffered from your charity’s disease. Your hospital treated their child. They adopted one of your shelter pets. You are core to who they are.
  • Be heavily committed to you. People don’t make their largest gifts to their sixth favorite charity. As Andre Gide put it “It is not enough to be loved — I wish to be preferred.”
  • Care about the effectiveness of your programs. It is said it is the death of response rates to talk about the data behind your program effectiveness. And it is, for the small donor. However, Karlan and Wood found that this changes for the most committed, $100+ donors – they want to hear that Yale University validated what you are doing.

Note that I did not mention wealthy donors. This is because:

You are not in the attracting-wealthy-donors business. Nor are you in the getting-gifts business (which is what I’d thought for most of my career). When we live in a world where two-thirds of your donors give only 4% of the gifts, you are in the learning-about-your-donors and catering-to-their-interests business.


* Especially now that we know that golf is a serious distraction from important causes like disaster relief.


Gender, generation, or ideology: which segmentation is most valuable?

September 28, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


Segmentation’s goal should be to put similar groups together.  You might have a lapsed donor segment, because a male lapsed donor looks more like a female lapsed donor than he looks like a male active donor, for example.

This came to mind when I was looking at NonProfit Tech for Good’s Data for Good.  This survey of online donors has some interesting data points on year-end giving (some are no surprise: did you know that online donors generally prefer giving online?).  But one of the goals form the study is to talk about “the impact of gender, generation, and ideology [and how they] impact philanthropic giving.”

I think all of us have been asked about how to get younger donors (or, worse, Millennial donors).  Or had recommendations to focus on one side of the gender continuum (in fact, I once had two agencies recommend focusing more on men and two recommend focusing on women – simultaneously.)

But how do those segmentations stack up against ideology – a non-demographic factor?  It’s certainly not going to be as good as something that is charity-specific (e.g., I give to the charity that aims to end the disease from which my loved one died). So, if it was more predictive of giving than demographics, then we probably should be ignoring demographics as a segmentation strategy. (Spoiler: it is and we should.)

So let’s go to the tape:


The largest change in preferences is about 20%. Women are more likely to support animal and women/girls charities. Men are more likely to support religion and faith and health and safety charities.


The biggest difference is millennials are 32% more likely than average to support human and civil rights organizations.  Boomers are slightly more likely to support religion and faith charities. Most other differences are in rounding error territory.


Here we see some real differences.  Conservatives are almost three times as likely as the average to support religion and faith charities. Liberals don’t have religious charities in their top five groups.  Liberals are 50% more likely to support human and civil rights organizations and 25% more likely to support environmental causes.

So, if you wanted to figure out whether someone would support your organization and could get only one data point – gender, generation, or ideology – you’d pick ideology every day and twice on Sundays (when many conservatives would be at the religious service of their choice).

And, as mentioned earlier, ideology isn’t even a particularly strong predictor.  You’d much rather know if they are cat or dog people if you are an animal charity.  Or if a disease has harmed them if you are a health charity.  Heck, I’d rather know if someone is an active attendee at religious services than their ideology if I were at a religious charity.  After all, there are religious liberals and secular conservatives.

In short, demographics are the second-best way to segment your file.  The best way is almost any other way.  Especially those ways that focus on what the donor has told you about their identity and preferences.


Is the best donor information bought or told?

September 21, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


The TL;DR version: the best information is told.  It’s not bought from outside providers nor does it live in a transactional database.

But I’m guessing you tuned in for something a bit more in-depth, so there are three big reasons why:

The predictive ability of external data is spotty at best. I recently got done looking at a year of results for an organization who segmented by a wealth data append.  The results showed zero impact between those donors who wealth screened as high-value donors and those who did not.  And this was for entry into a mid-level giving society.

Other data also suffer. You are probably already segmenting by recency, frequency, and amount of giving.  But the person who last gave 11 months ago isn’t very different from the one who gave 13 months ago.  Or the person who gave $25 twice instead of $50 once.

The value of demographics is likewise overstated.  Todd Yellin, Netflix’s VP of product innovation, stated “There’s a mountain of data that we have at our disposal. … Geography, age, and gender? We put that in the garbage heap. Where you live is not that important.”  Netflix is a great example of a company built on data that people gave to them willingly to create recommendations.

For us, things like commitment, donor identity, and cause connection are all far more predictive of future giving than these weak indicators.  The trick is that you only get these data by asking.

Our abilities to get purchased data may be threatened.  Just the idea that people are gathering data on you without your knowledge or consent seems creepy, even when the data are relatively benign.  So there is some push back against our abilities to use these data.

For example, Apple is under fire from advertisers for blocking cookies on its mobile devices and Safari browser.  There’s a significant debate over this, but since Apple doesn’t make its money from ads and two of its largest competitors do, I’ll wager the debate won’t change Apple’s mind.

This means that remarketing, open rate data, and personalization within our websites won’t work (in many cases) on these devices and browsers.

When people started using the Web, there was a famous cartoon:

On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

Now, your every step is followed.  Everyone knows you’re a dog, what type of dog you are, and which brand of anti-flea shampoo to market to you.  But the pendulum may be, for better or worse, swinging back.

This isn’t just online.  Nor it is just for for-profits.  Large British charities are being fined for “snooping” on their donors. Their crime: doing a wealth append to their donor file.  There are also broader EU-level discussions on restricting data use in marketing.

Here in the US, wealth appending is a common-ish practice.  (We tend to believe that if you outlaw wealth appends, only outlaws will append wealth data.)  But in culturally similar countries, donors were so angry about this practice, they banned it.

Not only must we gird against this coming to the United States, but we must also remember we have European folks on US distribution lists.  Thus (while IANALATINLA*) we are subject to these regulations as we send out fundraising appeals.

We must prepare for a future without these external data.  The safeguard against this is to get data that is personal to your organization and provided by the donor.

Few people get mad at you for using data you got from them directly.  In fact, they now expect it.  If someone says they had a bad donation experience and you send them an email wanting to help fix it, that’s a net win for them.

This is not the case for appended or generated data.  Not only are there the slip-ups using transactional data (e.g., my recent unhappiness at being called a lapsed donor by an organization to which I’d just donated), but big data and algorithms can do some downright cruel things.

In 2014, a man received a letter from OfficeMax that was addressed to his name, with the second line of the address reading “Daughter Killed In Car Crash.”

Yes, a year earlier, his daughter had in fact been killed in a car crash.  As someone who has lost a daughter, I can tell you that this type of solicitation does not make me want to buy office products.  It makes me want to find the person responsible and punch them until I run out of fist or they run out of face.

But there probably was no person responsible.  A screw-up that large requires a faulty system to let that letter go through.  And every snowflake in that avalanche pleads not guilty.

This does not happen when you are using user-generated data.  Yes, you will get the occasional person who tests your online system by entering more adult versions of “Richard Poopyfacehead.”  I would describe these attempts as adolescent except for my desire not to besmirch adolescents.

So, better results, fewer mad donors, and the ability to use the data long term – this all sounds like an argument for taking from investment in appending and acquiring data from outside sources and putting it into asking donors about themselves and building from that.

In fact, it is that argument.  So if you have a good counter-argument, let us know in the comments!


* I Am Not A Lawyer And This Is Not Legal Advice


Easy is better than hard

September 14, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


Easy things make brains happy.  Happy brains do the things we ask them to (like donate).  The easier something is, the more it convinces.  Simple stocks go up more; simple named people become president.

We often forget this. So here’s a simple post about keeping it simple. (The hard data are in links.)

Easy = True

Image credit: Boston Globe

Easy things

Things in threes.  I came, I saw, I conquered. Blood, sweat, and tears.  (Churchill actually said “blood, toil, sweat, and tears,” but we like things in threes).  Options in threes are also good.  People take the one in the middle.  Goldilocks is your donor: not too much, not too little, just right.

Repeating things. Seeing things once makes you like seeing things again.  Three times is even better.  Even if it’s nonsense, you like it because you’ve seen it.  That’s why good copy repeats.

Simple fonts.  Reading Arial makes you think something is easy to do.  Script fonts make it seem hard.  Reminder: easy things make brains happy and want to donate.

Repeating things. Repeating things helps with memory.  Being in memory is good.

Building to your ask. Small steps like email petitions increase donations. It’s called getting your foot in the door, like a door-to-door salesperson.

Doing what others do. Knowing others gave means you’ll probably give.  Following others is easy.

Repeating things.  You knew we’d try this joke again, right?

Short sentences. Fragments even. Your English teacher may disagree.  If s/he wants a say, s/he needs to donate.

Pictures. They are better than a thousand words. Pictures makes words easier to believe.

Especially if it’s someone trustworthy. Image credit: USA Today

Hard things you should stop

Acronyms and initializations. You talk about your KPIs or LMICs; donors say WTF and STFU.

Long words that don’t need to be. Are people malnourished and underprivileged? Or are they hungry and poor? Things aren’t challenging. Or suboptimal.  They are bad.  People will get these words most of the time.  They aren’t idiots.  But it slows their brain. And a fast, easy brain is a happy, donating brain.

Font colors similar to the background.  White on black is easy.  Black on white is not. And don’t do this.

Saying people aren’t doing something.  This is negative social proof.  We talked about it here

…but it bears repeating.



Getting your finance department to sign off on restricted giving

September 7, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


Allowing donors to restrict their gifts increases giving, even though very few donors choose to exercise the option. (see for example here and here)  This is partly because donors like control of things (see DonorVoice’s Dr. Kiki Koutmeridou discussion of how donor control can get people to opt in here) and partly because the ability to designate allows people to pick options in concert with their own identity and preferences.


  • Increased average gift
  • No additional cost of solicitation
  • More satisfied donors

Why don’t more organizations allow for restricted giving?

As one who has tried, the main argument is the headache that would come from having multiple restricted funds (which can be mitigated by a strong caging vendor and clear online giving forms and databases).  But often the folks who will have to work harder because of restricted giving, knowing that this rationale won’t carry the day, say “what if everyone restricted their gift?”.  Or, more to the point, what if people restricted their gifts in a way that changed the way an organization’s budget is shaped?*

This argument often wins the day, despite the evidence that few people choose to restrict their gift.  As a result, organizations like Kiva and DonorsChoose continue to disrupt the nonprofit sector by allowing this control that donors crave.

But what if you could give people the option to restrict their gift, but subtly persuade them to choose a general gift?  This is precisely what Jung and Henderson studied, in a paper presented yesterday at the Science of Philanthropy Initiative conference.  (Hot off the presses!)

They found that people looking to direct their gift balance feasibility and desirability.  That is, if there is a highly attractive option and it’s easy to make a choice, people will make a choice.  If the attractiveness of options is similar and it’s difficult to make a choice, people will delegate the choice to the charity with an unrestricted gift.

They aren’t suggesting you make the choice process hard (although it would be good to have options that are all attractive).  Rather they use a clever bit of priming by asking participants in their study to do “why” tasks (why are you giving this gift) versus “how” tasks (how are you going to make your gift) before making the gift itself.  When people were primed to think about the process of giving, they were 40% less likely to designate their gift than when they were primed to think about why they were giving.

Now, we don’t have a captive donor audience we can focus to answer questions before they donate.  But priming still is a viable strategy.  Simply try bolding a line at the top of your donation form that explains the process, e.g., “You can make a difference in just three easy steps!”  This puts the donor in a 1, 2, 3 mindset and they will likely be less inclined to designate.

Hopefully, this trick will help you convince your internal audiences to allow you to start accepting (and advertising) donor-directed donations.

And if you want more tips from the SPI conference as I type up my notes, you can subscribe to our newsletter here: