How Fundraisers Can Use a Social Norms Approach to Increase Giving | npENGAGE

How Fundraisers Can Use a Social Norms Approach to Increase Giving

By on Dec 11, 2018


Many fundraisers can attest to the power of social norms. In both anecdotes and previous research, we can see a clear link between social norms — behaviors that are common, valued and accepted by others — and charitable giving. Put simply: when you see someone donate, you’re more likely to donate yourself.  

But what about causes or organizations with a smaller donor base? How can charitable causes with lower visibility inspire donors to give — and to give more? To answer these questions, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) explored the intersection of social psychology and philanthropy in our latest report, titled “Encouraging Giving to Women’s & Girls’ Causes: The Role of Social Norms.”  

The research focused on women’s and girls’ causes, as nonprofits in this sector typically face unique challenges. Obtaining support can be difficult for these organizations; for example, research tells us that men typically give to women’s and girls’ causes at significantly lower levels than women.  

Using women’s and girls’ causes as a model, we explored how social norms affect giving and whether that influence differs by gender. The report offers several key findings that fundraisers can leverage to tap into social norms — a powerful fundraising force. 


The link between social norms and charitable giving is strong.  

The research confirmed that both women and men are highly influenced by social norms. When people believe that others are interested in giving to women’s and girls’ causes, they have greater intentions to donate to these causes themselves. This is true for both female and male donors. 

We’ve seen this come to life through the power of crowdfunding campaigns. Collective giving platforms create more visibility for donors’ behaviors, which can lead to “snowballing” or “bandwagon” effects in giving. Facebook Fundraisers are a great example, too. Just last summer, a couple on Facebook famously raised over $15 million dollars in less than a week. By tapping into both current events and the shareability of social media, the viral campaign became the highest-grossing fundraiser to ever be on Facebook. Giving inspires more giving, especially when you see your friends making donations.  


Fundraising benefits from emphasizing the rising popularity of giving.  

The research demonstrated that not all social norm messages are created equal. Focusing on the rising popularity of women’s and girls’ causes increased people’s intentions to donate compared to focusing solely on current levels of giving.  

To put the research into action, fundraisers can create messages that emphasize the positive, rising trends in giving. For example, describe potential donor contributions as part of a “growing movement” or as an effort that is “gaining momentum.” Instead of highlighting recap numbers from donation campaigns, you can instead include real-time updates on fundraising progress. 


Women and men react differently to social norms messaging.  

Building on previous WPI research, this report affirmed that women and men differ in how they respond to messaging. For women, giving to women’s and girls’ causes is strongly tied to their perception of whether other women give to these causes. For men, their giving was tied to their perception of both women’s and men’s giving.  

For women’s and girl’s causes, which typically see lower engagement levels from men, it may be especially useful to highlight testimonials from male donors. In practice, this might look like asking a male board member to write a LinkedIn post about why he supports your organization, including men in your online images or spotlighting quotes from male donors as part of a social media series. Fundraisers from all causes can apply this “visibility” strategy: in order to reach populations that give less frequently, try featuring testimonials or endorsements from a diverse mix of donors. 

While charitable giving is often perceived as a highly personal experience, it’s critical for fundraisers to understand how much social influence plays into donations. Giving behavior varies between women and men — but both genders are receptive to the power of social norms messages.  


For more information on how to incorporate gender differences into your fundraising strategy, explore the Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s growing body of research.  


As interim director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, Andrea is responsible for program and curriculum development and implementation, marketing, social media, and operations. She has organized four national symposia on women and philanthropy for the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and five national conferences on the same topic in partnership with CASE. She co-developed the first-ever online course about women and philanthropy, Women and Philanthropy—The Time is Now, for The New York Times Knowledge Network and the online conference, SHEMAKESCHANGE, about the intersection of women, money, and philanthropy.

Andrea is co-author with Dr. Dwight Burlingame on a chapter on the history of donor education and with Dr. Debra Mesch on research and women’s philanthropy for From Donor to Philanthropist: The Value of Donor Education in Creating Confident, Joyful Donors (2013). She is also co-author of chapters on women and philanthropy, notably in Fundraising Principles and PracticesLeadership in Nonprofit Organizations, and Achieving Excellence in Fundraising.

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