Want a successful charity? Our research might help

Keith Botner, marketing doctoral candidate at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, is the lead author of the paper “What’s In a Message? The Longitudinal Influence of a Supportive Versus Combative Orientation on the Performance of Nonprofits,” slated to appear in the February print edition of the Journal of Marketing.

He shares the highlights of his findings. Listen here and check out a video clip above. You can find the full transcript below and the official press release here.

Q: Tell me about your findings in the research paper

Keith Botner: In our research, we examine how message orientation can affect one’s long-term donations to a charity.

By message orientation, we’re basically referring to how a charity chooses to communicate its aims, and we specifically focus on two types… supportive and combative orientations.

Briefly, supportive can be thought of as any name or accompanying message from the charity that promotes the cause, whereas combative would be associated with fighting a problem or an issue. Allow me to give you a brief example. A charity in the environmental domain could frame themselves supportively as “Citizens for Urban Renewal”, or they could opt for a combative orientation in “Citizens Fighting Urban Decay”.

Now, while existing literature generally supports the notion that negative messages may receive greater attention, our research uniquely focuses on the long term effect, and shows that a supportive orientation is more likely to survive with greater donations.

Importantly, we find this through an examination of real-world data as well as a controlled lab study, and that this effect applies to donations of time as well as money. As for implications, these findings could apply to any charity seeking to maximize long-term consumer response.

Q: Why do people want to donate to a charity with supportive messaging more than combative messaging?

Keith Botner: As for why one might prefer to donate to a charity with supportive versus combative messaging, while there are a number of possible factors that contribute to one’s long-term preference for a supportive orientation, our research suggests that supportive and combative orientations trigger distinct mindsets affecting long-term behavior. For example, a supportive charity is more likely to activate motivations focused on promotion and advancement of the cause, and these motivations tend to be more global or long-term. A combative charity, on the other hand, would be more likely to result in motivations that are more prevention-based, and this mindset tends to be more focused on the immediate threat. From this, we conclude that a supportive orientation—due to a global, top-down focus on advancing the cause—results in greater goal commitment for the donor, thus leading to greater long-term donations to supportive charities.

Q: With the desire to donate comes longer lifetimes for charities. What did your research find about the amounts of money over time people donated?

Keith Botner: As for long-term monetary donations, our first study—based on 10 years of publicly available IRS data—showed that a supportive charity generates 3.8 percent more in annual revenue versus a comparable charity that uses a combative orientation. Also, in more controlled lab setting, we found that a supportive orientation resulted in participants donating approximately 16 percent of money that was earned in a series of studies, whereas this amount was only 3 percent for a combative orientation.

Q: You point out in your research that the popularity of a charity affects how willing donors are to make a contribution. What factors other than the messaging might have played into your findings?

Keith Botner: While our research focuses on the specific mindset that each charity type engenders—which we suggest is a more global, promotion-based mindset for supportive charities and a local, prevention-based mindset for combative charities—a number of other factors could be at play. For example, other possibilities, such as the less-frequent occurrence of combative orientations, one’s overall liking for positive names, or the social influence in seeing others donate to a charity could be contributing to our proposed effect.

Q: You were able to move beyond tax reports and actually watch donors in action. Did those live results turn out as you expected?

Keith Botner: Yes the live results did validate what we found with the IRS data. In addition to examining the IRS data—which showed greater survival and revenue for supportive charities—we ran a field study with an actual non-profit as well as a controlled lab study. Our field and lab studies validated what we found with the IRS data, and also showed that our proposed effect—that is, greater long-term performance of supportive charities—applies to one’s donation of time, in addition to money.

Q: How does this research affect folks who are running not only nonprofits but also organizations of any sort?

Keith Botner: Allow me to say that our research specifically focuses on the charitable domain, thus we cannot extrapolate these findings to other areas. In our paper, we do discuss how implications could potentially extend to any brand or marketing message seeking to maximize long-term response. For example, a marketer seeking optimal long-term response from consumers may be better suited to emphasize the benefits and positive aspects of the product rather than promote how this same product eliminates unwanted consequences. While it would need to be tested, this could apply to consumer products, services or even the public policy or political arena.


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