Is Your Social Impact Organization’s Marketing Strategy Failing? How Behavioral Economics Can Help

by csladmin


If your social impact organization relies on supporters to give time, money and resources (don’t they all?) you’ve probably wondered how to get people more involved in your cause — not just to be sympathetic, but to be actively invested. If you find it’s hard to motivate people to commit to being involved, it’s not your fault. Blame your marketing. And economics.

Why Social Impact Organizations Require Different Marketing Tactics

Understanding how people make decisions is key to any organization, especially when the purpose is to move the audience to commit time or money to a greater—but intangible—good.

Think about when you see an ad from Zappos. It may influence you to buy a pair of shoes. You’ll pay the company, and a few days later, you’ll get a pair of shoes in the mail. But when you donate money to the Make A Wish Foundation, you have the intrinsic satisfaction of knowing you’ve assisted in an organization’s mission to make a child’s dream come true. For some potential donors, that internal satisfaction is motivating enough, but for others, it’s not. Additional motivators, through the lessons of behavioral economics, may reach this untapped audience and increase their desire to be involved.

What is Behavioral Economics?

Traditional economics, which studies the use of resources, looks at how we make decisions with the assumption that human beings make rational decisions. But when you look at the decisions we make, it’s clear they’re not always rational. If they were, no one would smoke and we’d all only eat healthy foods.

Behavioral economics enriches the conventional economics toolbox by incorporating insights from psychology, neuroscience, sociology, politics, and the law. The result is a more vibrant and revealing economic analysis based on more realistic assumptions about how we behave and the real-world circumstances that influence the decisions we make.

My company, Creative Science Labs, develops digital experiences for mission-driven organizations, leveraging behavioral economics’ concepts as a foundation in that development. Leveraging these concepts and theories, we are able to increase the likelihood of reaching and moving our clients’ desired audiences to take action.

But the behavioral economics concepts we use aren’t just effective for the web. If you understand these ideas, you can put them to work to amplify the marketing message of your own social impact organization, and make it more likely that people will respond to your call to action.

Lesson #1: Highlight an Identifiable Hero 

Douglas, a community health volunteer, is working to end malaria in Africa. When neighbors feels sick, they can come to Douglas for testing and treatment from the life-threatening disease. Donors can help Douglas and others like him get more needed equipment by contributing to Malaria No More’s fundraising efforts.

Malaria No More End of Year Campaign

Our brains are wired for story. Through neuroscience, we know stories help us empathize with the protagonists of stories. Psychology tells us stories help create a needed connection with others. These forces inspire us to care about Douglas, ignite in us a desire to help him achieve his purpose, and as a result, make us more motivated to donate.

We created a website highlighting Douglas’ efforts and needs. By focusing on an individual, it creates someone we can picture, someone we can identify with, and establishes a human connection.

Instead of sharing Douglas’ individual story, we could have shared data, such as how malaria deaths decreased by 29% between 2010 and 2015 or that since 2001, 6.8 million malaria deaths have been avoided.

But Douglas’ story is more compelling. When a donor sends money, they can picture how their contribution helps Douglas (or someone like Douglas) and not how their contribution helps a nebulous 6.8 million people survive.

Lesson #2: Immediate Feedback Loops

How can you get consumers to conserve energy? Electricity is invisible, so even those who want to conserve it may not know how much they’re using. Southern California Edison began giving its customers an ambient orb that tracked energy usage, showing red during peak grid use and green when usage was modest. The result? Consumers reduced peak energy use by 40%.

Quality, timely feedback helps nudge behavior. An orb may not work for your organization, but feedback can be frequently included in updates on a project’s progress. A fundraising thermometer or path to the goal can be motivating. Through the use of an interactive visual, showing supporters how their contribution will help further an organization’s mission can work wonders.

The devastating flooding from Hurricane Harvey prompted numerous fundraising efforts, and some of the organizations encourage donors to share a post about the donation on social media. Urging donors to share donation posts on their social media channels encourages others to donate and to provide public kudos for those who did.

Lesson #3: Framing 

It’s not what you say, but how you say it. You can deliver the same message positively or negatively and influence your audience’s decision. For example, would you be more likely to eat ground beef labeled “10% fat” or “90% lean?” Of course, they mean the same thing, but the way it is framed implies a contrast.


In a study, college professors were invited to sign up for a conference. Some received an offer to sign up early for a discount. Others were warned they would pay a penalty for late registration. The offers were framed to have a negative or positive side. Interestingly, more people registered quickly to avoid a penalty than those who signed up to get a discount.

People are more likely to avoid a negative than pursue a positive. Given this, which might be a more effective example to get people to help provide clean water to an area?:

“1 out of 10 children don’t have clean drinking water. Please donate.” or “9 out of 10 children have clean drinking water. Please donate.”

Both statements mean the same thing, but by focusing on what is needed—or a benefit that is lost—people are more likely to act.

Next time your organization is trying to show the scope of a problem, try using framing to give it more impact.

Lesson #4: Anchoring 

Sometimes, it’s not what you say, but how you say, or anchor it. Imagine going house hunting and looking at two houses. One is well within your budget and one is at the top of your budget. You may have hesitation to get the one at the top of your budget. But if you look at three houses—the same two, plus one that is $100,000 beyond your budget, the one that’s at the top of your budget suddenly doesn’t seem as expensive.

In anchoring, the perceived value of something can be steered, or anchored. Some restaurants have a new checkout system on tablets. It may ask if you’d like to leave a tip of $1, $2 or $5. If you were only provided with the first two choices, you’re more likely to only tip $1. But by anchoring the choices with the $5, the $2 tip no longer seems so high, so you’re more likely to add that.

This is the same when asking for donations. People give more if the options range from $100 to $5,000 than if the options range from $50 to $150. Just as in the example on tip giving, people use the $5,000 amount to ‘anchor’ themselves towards the higher end so $50 and $150 don’t seem to be quite as high of a donation.

Highlighting an identifiable hero, providing immediate feedback, harnessing the power of framing, and using anchoring are just some of the concepts from behavioral economics that can help you find success with your marketing strategy. We’ll talk about more in subsequent posts, but in the meantime, consider implementing these ideas in your upcoming communications to bring your message to your audience and give them the impetus they need to take action.



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