Social Identity Theory: The key to donor loyalty?

Social Identity Theory: The key to donor loyalty?


We all feel a need to ‘belong’ - and your donors are no different. Ian MacQuillin unpicks the increasingly important role of Social Identity Theory in supporter retention


Rogare’s review of the psychological theory that could underpin future developments in relationship fundraising highlighted many important possibilities. But perhaps none will be more important than exploring the implications of Social Identity Theory, which we dare say may even be the ‘next big thing’ in fundraising.


This is the idea that people’s sense of who they are is based on the groups they belong to; for example their family or the football team they support.


This will be increasingly important in fundraising because higher levels of identification with an organisation lead to higher levels of loyalty to it (and in fundraising terms, higher loyalty means higher donations over time).


So fundraisers need to start thinking how they can get their donors to identify with the organisations they support.


Need to belong


Key here may be to realise that people have a ‘need to belong’ – they need to feel that they are part of something. So charities need to instill in their supporters that they don’t just give to Greenpeace, but that they are a ‘Greenpeace supporter’ and/or an ‘environmental campaigner’; they don’t just give to Action Aid, they are an ‘ActionAider’ and/or a ‘child sponsor’.


Putting donors into a group


One very easy way to instill this sense of ‘we-ness’ with the organisation is to assign donors some kind of label when they first give. This could simply be calling them ‘members’ or it could be something more specific such as calling them ‘lifesavers’ or ‘animal rescuers’. It’s harder for the donor not to give a second time – or to stop their giving – because that’s not consistent with their identity as an ‘animal rescuer’.


Words are not enough


But it’s not enough to just to give donors a label and tell them how similar they are to the organisation or tell them what a great job they are doing. They need to experience this for themselves. This is why it is important that charities allow their donors to take part in events that let them experience similar beliefs and values being applied.


For major donors, this could be taking them to projects to see how the charity puts their money to good use. For individual donors, this could be taking part in a challenge event where donors are asked to imagine themselves ‘walking in the beneficiaries’ shoes’.


A good example is MSF Canada’s sponsored walk, where participants were asked to walk distances that people in Africa needed to walk just to get medical care.


Arbitrary, but not superficial


Psychology tells us that people will identify with any label they are given. But there has to be some substance to it. A charity risks alienating donors if they find out the group they think they identify with is not really any different to all the charity’s other donors.


A different kind of fundraising ‘disclosure’


Another way to get donors to identify more with the organisations they support is to try to build intimacy with them by getting them to tell you how they feel about you. So many charity questionnaires are facile and superficial. But if charities genuinely ask how their donors feel about why they are giving, or what they think about some types of fundraising, they are going to feel more connected with the organisation, and more loyal to it.


Identity fusion


Finally, and this is a long way off, charities should aim to be getting donors to ‘fuse’ their own identity with that of the organisation, so that donors feel they are actually meeting their own needs when they meet the needs of the charity and its beneficiaries. When this happens, donors will think in terms of ‘I am Cancer Research UK’ or ‘When the Red Cross is strong, I am strong’.


To really make this work, fundraisers will need to support donors in meeting their need to belong, and to encourage and stretch them to live a fulfilled live. To do that well, they are going to need all the theories and ideas we describe in our relationship fundraising review.


Ian MacQuillin is the director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. The four volumes of Relationship Fundraising: Where Do We Go From Here can be downloaded here.

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