Research & Reports

"Interaction of Gender and Personal Values in Donor Response to Appeals": First Levis Fundraising Research Grant Recipient Study Findings Released

Stewardship & Marketing: Direct Response/Marketing
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One of the four pillars of the AFP U.S. Foundation for Philanthropy’s Strategic Plan is to support research on critical issues in fundraising. Independent research on topics that foster understanding and spark innovation for social good are vital to the sector, providing important information to fundraisers about best practices as industry trends. The AFP Wilson C. "Bill" Levis Fundraising Research Grant provides funds to researchers who wish to undertake projects directly related to fundraising performance. 

In 2021, the first grant was awarded to Ruth K. Hansen, Ph.D., assistant professor of management at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, and Lauren Dula, Ph.D., assistant professor of public administration at Binghamton University, State University of New York. Their research project, Interaction of Gender and Personal Values in Donor Response to Appeals, studied the effects that values, social roles, and expectations have on potential donors’ reactions to fundraising appeals and their findings are being shared through various conferences and publications.

The study focused on analyzing actual fundraising acquisition appeals and the impact the choice of writing style, including the focus on two different values, had on the letter’s recipient. The audience studied was 1,400 people evenly split between groups of self-identified men and self-identified women. The style of appeal letter fell into two categories, those that focus on Universalism values (an appreciation for community and the welfare of all people) or on conservation of Security values (those of personal safety and stability for close others) and were written on behalf of a fictional children’s cancer group. Additionally, the study compared the impact of gender on targeted messaging practices and investigated empirically whether one value set encourages a particular gender to give more than another. 

The study findings were based on responses to basic questions like – ‘would you donate’ and ‘how much would you give’ after reading the appeal letters. The result showed that letters appealing to a value of social focus and the promotion of gain (Universalism) were the least popular with both men and women. The style that resonated with women, garnering the most donations, were letters that focused on social focus and the prevention of loss (Security value). Men responded most frequently to letters devoid of focus on a particular value. So, a good acquisition letter is more about aspects other than focusing on personal values like Universalism and Security. 

Dr. Hansen and Dr. Dula found that the results were not in line with their original predictions. There might be a few reasons why. The study took place during the COVID-19 pandemic before vaccines were available for children. With the appeal coming from a nonprofit focused on children’s cancer, it may have caused an increase in general anxiety.  The Security Value proposition is most often associated with anxiety/risk reduction, so it could have been a factor in the response to that type of appeal letter. Additionally, professional fundraisers are close to their missions and have different perspectives and priorities than the general public. The values and writing style used for these letters may not appeal to people who are not already donors so a more general, less value-based approach, may be more successful.

Dr. Dula observed, "The traditional expectations and previous studies usually highlight the altruism of women's donation patterns, but here we see that language of safety and stress reduction were as persuasive for women as they were for men. This was a surprise, but one that can help organizations in troubled times. Language focusing on someone close to them may motivate all donors during social upheaval."

"We're so used to thinking of donors as acting on their values when they make a gift. When my analysis showed that fundraisers were structuring appeals around personal values, I think that validated how important it is for so many people in our world to act on what they believe. At first, I was surprised at the results of our current study, but as I think about it, developing a constituency is a long-term project, and an acquisition letter is just the "hello" in what might be a developing relationship.” Dr. Hansen said.

The study included other data as well that is being used in articles focused on impulse giving decisions, the impact being a parent has on the response to fundraising appeals, and political leanings and response to values in appeal letters. Stayed tuned for future findings.

Dr. Hansen and Dr. Dula have presented their findings at AFP ICON, the Midwest Public Affairs Conference (Springfield, IL), and at the International Society for Third-sector Research (Montreal, Quebec) and published an article about the study in the Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing. You can find their report attached below.

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