2 New Studies Aim to Show Nonprofits What Appeals to Donors Most
Two new studies from the Lilly school make the case for nonprofits to boost investments technology, including video and social media, to attract and retain donors.
While researchers have long know that donors value information about the impact of their gifts, the new studies indicate that donors’ expectations of that kind of feedback is increasing and becoming more sophisticated.
The growth and prevalence of companies like Netflix have made people increasingly comfortable with paying for things on a recurring basis, and more nonprofits should take advantage of the trend, Osili said.
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The pandemic has made it especially important for nonprofits to improve the ways they use technology — especially video — to connect with donors, according to new research from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
The research is part of a series of studies funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that is intended to explore the underlying causes of the steady decline in the share of Americans who give to charity.
While researchers have long known that donors value information about the impact of their gifts, the new studies indicate that donors’ expectations of feedback about their gifts and the causes they support is increasing and becoming more sophisticated.
One of the studies involved 16 focus groups that included a total of 83 fundraisers, donors, and people who are members of organizations like the YMCA but who don’t donate to explore how people make charitable-giving decisions. “People shifted their giving to organizations that demonstrated impact and efficacy, which actively engaged in communication and education, and which personalized donor engagement,” states the study, “Understanding How Donors Make Giving Decisions.”
With many people still hesitant to do events and face-to-face meetings, improving the use of technology to connect with donors may be especially important, said Una Osili, associate dean for research and international programs at the Lilly School.
“For fundraisers, the implication is thinking about how you can connect the donor to the cause, and engage them with the work and the mission,” Osili said. “Video can connect in a way that maybe a written message cannot.”
Fundraisers in the focus groups also expressed a desire for their organizations to invest in technologies beyond video that can boost and personalize outreach to donors. For example, some fundraisers said they were either interested in or already experimenting with “geofencing,” in which software uses GPS or cellular data to trigger certain actions, such as an email solicitation, when a mobile device enters a specified geographical area.
People have been more interested since the onset of the pandemic in giving locally, Osili said, and technologies like geofencing can help nonprofits connect with those donors.
“The shift to virtual interactions and the need to use more digital technologies was framed as inevitable but challenging,” says the Lilly report.
A Closer Look at Video
The other Lilly study, “Understanding Drivers for Donor Engagement,” involved 1,545 American adults and explored the impact of video versus email messages, using as a case study a nonprofit that provides emotional support to children hospitalized with serious illnesses.
One group of research subjects was shown a video of the nonprofit doing its work. Another group of subjects received a fundraising email describing the unfairness of a child being seriously ill and the hardship on the family. A control group read a brief, straightforward description of the work done by the nonprofit. Participants were then asked to sign up for an email newsletter or contribute $5 to the nonprofit.
The video increased the likelihood of recipients connecting with the nonprofit by 43 percent compared with the control group. The video was effective both for people who had not heard of the nonprofit previously and for people who hadn’t donated to any nonprofit within the past year.
Those who received the email messages were also more likely to connect with the nonprofit than the control group, but the difference was within the study’s margin of error.
Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, professor of philanthropic studies at the Lilly school, said the study suggests it is important for fundraising messages to connect with donors’ empathy and show impact of donations in specific way, but without making people feel stressed or guilty.
That study had a four percentage-point margin of error.