Nonprofits often think of branding as how they want to present themselves. True, effective branding is actually how they present their donors.
Nonprofits struggle with connecting donors to the mission. You may have this same challenge. You try to communicate how good and important your work is. You try to show the impact that you’re making. You try to emphasize the necessity for donations. But it’s just not clicking with your audience.
The problem isn’t that your donor doesn’t care about the cause. The problem is that you don’t care about your donor – or at least in the way that your donor needs to be cared for.
We’re going to take a look at some psychological research studies that reveal insights into how people view donating and altruism, and extract how it can influence your nonprofit’s branding and messaging.
You’ll discover that effective branding for your nonprofit is actually branding for your donor, and we’ll unpack what that means.
Before you can create a brand for your donor, and subsequently your nonprofit, you need to hold and understand 3 core beliefs about your donor:
- They are altruistic
- They aspire to an ideal self
- That ideal self comes from association
People Are Altruistic
For as long as psychology and sociology have existed, researchers have studied and debated about the true nature of people. Are people naturally altruistic or selfish? Is it biological or learned?
The reality is that you will find research for both, and that’s because both are true. People are naturally altruistic, and they’re also naturally selfish.
But this should be good news for nonprofits.
It means that regardless of any selfishness that may exist, there will always be altruism and the desire to help.
In a recent study from the University of Washington toddlers naturally helped a stranger in need without any sort of asking or prompting. In this experiment, a stranger would drop food and pretend to struggle in trying to reach it. He would not look to the child for help or ask. Most toddlers sensed the needs and picked up the food and gave it to the person. In a similar test, the same experiment was performed when toddlers were hungry. They still helped pick up the food and give it to the stranger, even at their own expense.
This is not just heartwarming for humanity in general, but also useful to know about your potential donors.
There is a part of them that is naturally altruistic – they want to help your cause. They will also do it at their own expense – donate money.
People Have an “Ideal Self”
Psychological theory also explores how someone’s personality is composed of their “real self” (who they see themselves as), and their “ideal self” (who they want to become).
People have an identity they aspire towards and try to project. This often includes positive traits such as altruism, kindness, compassion, and generosity.
In a research article from the Journal of Management Development, a study explored how an ideal self is an incredibly strong motivator for change. This means that if someone has a clear picture of who they want to become, they are highly likely to take the necessary actions to become that person.
Here’s why this matters in nonprofit branding.
If people can be naturally altruistic and generous, and want to be more of that, you as a nonprofit can help them attain that ideal self by helping to paint a picture of who they want to be. Your role as a nonprofit is more important than you think.
Identity Comes from Association
People form their identities, both actual and ideal, from the groups they are part of. Not only are people shaped by the groups they belong to, they also join groups to change into who they want to be. What often gets underestimated is the latter – the bond between a group and someone’s ideal self.
From the Journal of Personnel Psychology, there was a study involving people applying to jobs at companies. Based on the job descriptions, applicants not only applied for jobs that matched their actual selves, but also for jobs that matched their ideal selves. In the study, there was evidence that people who were then hired for jobs that were aligned with their ideal selves ended up performing better and had viewed the company more positively.
This study reveals the strong connection that an organization can have with an individual when it aligns with their ideal selves. As a nonprofit, you embody the ideals of altruism and goodwill – ideals that your potential donor aspires to. When you can help that person realize their ideal self, your brand becomes an essential part of their identity. Your nonprofit is not just an external cause, it’s an extension of who they are.
Your Nonprofit Helps Make Up Their Identity
So you see these 3 core components of people, and in essence your potential donors: they are altruistic, aspire to an ideal self, and can realize that ideal self through association. So how does this affect your branding and messaging as a nonprofit?
You need to speak with confidence and draw out the best in your audience.
Speak as a nonprofit that knows your donor wants to be associated with your brand. For-profit companies understand this. That’s why people want to wear Nike apparel or use Apple products or drive Teslas. Those brands make up their identity, and they proudly show it off.
So how do you communicate in a way that makes people proud to say they donate to your nonprofit? What would compel them to aspire to be considered a major donor to your brand?
It’s speaking to their ideal self and their future self. See in your potential donor the person they want to be, and maybe the person others don’t see in them. Identify and call out the good and the noble, and celebrate it. Take on the role of a teacher, coach, or mentor, motivating people towards their better angels.
What does messaging like this look like?
How Your Brand Makes Their Brand
Hopefully at this point, you’ll realize one of the most important things about branding overall, and even more specifically nonprofit branding: it’s not about you, it’s about the donor.
Too many nonprofits make this mistake and talk about what they do and how great they are. Successful nonprofits talk about what the donors can do and how great the donors are.
What does it mean for a nonprofit to form the brand of their donors?
Everybody has “personal brand.” It’s how people project themselves to the world, and involves the multiple roles and associations that form their identity. This includes their family roles, their careers, and their hobbies and passions.
If your nonprofit does humanitarian work, your branding is telling your potential donor that they are a humanitarian. If your nonprofit does environmental work, your branding is telling your potential donor that they are an environmentalist. If your nonprofit does social work, your branding is telling your potential donor that they are an advocate.
Show your potential donors that they have the capacity to make a lasting change, and they can rise to the occasion and act. Your nonprofit is simply an avenue for them to impact the world.
By calling out and identifying the ideal self that people aspire to, you help them realize that donating to your organization is just a natural extension of who they are.
When your nonprofit brand helps form your donor’s personal brand, then your donor’s personal brand will amplify your nonprofit’s brand.