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.