Aspirational nonprofits-style photo. Aspirational nonprofits-style photo.

How eCommerce stores can benefit from thinking like a nonprofit

Like most people, you probably need a good reason to part with your hard-earned dollars. Our priorities are determined somewhat by a hierarchy of needs; there’s no doubt we need food and shelter to survive, but do we really need that designer handbag or an electric corkscrew? Rationally speaking, of course we don’t, but a strong marketing strategy and a dash of social pressure can make us feel like we do.

If you’re getting the sense that too many people are responding to your products with, “In THIS economy?!”, it might be time to look at nonprofits for some inspiration. Nobody needs to give to charity, yet involvement in charitable giving is fairly staggering. Charitable giving has increased every year since 1977 with only three exceptions (1987, 2008, and 2009) and continues to hit new record levels every year. Approximately 70 percent of the giving comes from individuals.

When it comes to email marketing, nonprofits also maintain one of the highest email open rates across all industries—24.11 percent, compared to eCommerce stores’ 15.66 percent.

A useful starting point for understanding this disparity is to identify what’s motivating so many people to give to nonprofit organizations. Desire to make a difference and positive social pressure are chief among them, but there’s much more to it than that.

Here’s the twist: What motivates us to donate $50 to an educational nonprofit is not drastically different from what motivates us to purchase a $50 sweater. Both acts serve as a means of personal expression and provide us with good feelings. Additionally, our purchases routinely carry layers of meaning and impact that feel a bit like activism. For example, we purchase reusable grocery bags to cut down on plastic waste when we buy more groceries. In doing so, we’re taking a small step to reduce our carbon footprint while also taking part in a $655 billion industry.

Buying products and giving to charity serve different purposes in our lives, both socially and economically, but the motivations behind both actions are undeniably human. What follows is an exploration of some common tactics that nonprofits utilize to tap into donor motivation, and how these strategies are transferable for eCommerce.

1. Identity

Charitable giving is part of who we are, as much as our taste in music or our favorite hobbies. Whether you give regularly to your church or contribute to an educational nonprofit’s crowdfunding campaign, a donation is a form of individual expression and a statement of your life’s purpose. Nonprofits tap into these motivations through personalized communication, one-on-one outreach, and planned giving programs that are deeply connected to you and your family’s legacy.

eCommerce can also tap into a person’s identity and purpose—the trick is figuring out how. Some industries have it easier than others; a sports team understands that being a fan is akin to being a parishioner, and that loyalty to a team can be monetized in numerous ways. But this marketing angle can be employed for virtually anything.

  • You should purchase this designer handbag because…
    • it’s useful for carrying all your stuff.
    • you are recognized in your community as being sophisticated and worldly.
  • You should purchase this electric corkscrew because…
    • it makes it easier to open a bottle of wine. 
    • you are a wine enthusiast and this is a tool for serious wine drinkers.
  • You should purchase this brand of exterior paint because…
    • it’s more durable than other brands. 
    • your house is a home, and you should treat it like family.
  • You should purchase this brand of jeans because…
    • it’s generally advisable to wear pants in social settings. 
    • your father wore this brand, and so did his father.

These examples put a human spin on products and tap into concepts that matter to people: Family, tradition, personal interests, and sense of belonging in a community. Ultimately, these concepts are intricately woven into a person’s identity and connected to the same motivations that compel people to support important causes.

Hydro Flask's ad caters to people's identity.
Via: Instagram.

In this example from Hydro Flask, we see a number of elements that speak to individual identity and community ethos: an open road, a VW bus, and two earthy people making a connection. The ad centers its product quite literally in the middle of the image, and frames it, figuratively, as a tool that enables two people to share with each other. All of this is framed with a call to action that speaks to a customer base that yearns for adventure: “Where ya headed?” Thus, an otherwise mundane object is positioned as a facilitator of human connection, generosity, adventure, exploration, freedom, and endless possibility.

2. Making a difference feels good

Studies have confirmed that voluntary giving to nonprofits activates our neural reward system; in other words, giving makes us feel good about ourselves. In that sense, giving is not unlike a piece of chocolate or a spontaneous splurge at a favorite store. Though a charitable transaction is aimed at a worthy recipient or cause, we receive a rush of dopamine in return, and the sense of satisfaction that comes with contributing to the public good.

The most effective fundraising teams tap into these motivations with intention and inspire a lifetime of giving. One way to achieve this is to translate dollars into impact: For every $10 you donate, you’ll feed one family for a month. A pitch like this is especially poignant because it’s so simple; a simple transaction can provide a family just like yours with a month of security, and that’s an amazing feeling.

Millennials and Gen Z may have earned a reputation for expecting the businesses they support to invest in a better world, but research has found that this expectation transcends generations. In fact, the 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study found that:

  • 89% of Americans prefer companies that operate in a way that benefits society and the environment.
  • 85% of Americans prefer companies that have a strong belief or commitment that guides how the company positively contributes to society.
  • 85% of Americans prefer companies that support specific causes in their communities and around the world.
  • 71% of Americans prefer companies that connect to consumers emotionally through issues they care about.

This study covers Americans as a whole, regardless of age, and is a reflection of cross-generational increases in sociopolitical engagement. A true sign of the times!

The bottom line is that most consumers want to feel like their purchases have meaning. If your product integrates quantifiable social or environmental impact, then you’re already there. If not, then think about ways that you can tap into the causes that your customers care about. For example, the mainstreaming of LGBTQ+ Pride Month has been aided significantly by a wide variety of brands showing their support through special promotions.

Shake Shack's LGBTQ+ Pride Month clothing and milkshake.
Via: Shake Shack.

Shake Shack is known for its delicious burgers and milkshakes, and maintains an array of social responsibility policies related to sustainability and community investment. However, the restaurant chain leveled up its commitment to the LGTBQ+ community in 2019, releasing a full line of Pride products and pledging $25,000 to the Trevor Project. Through this effort, the company was also able to highlight its 100% score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. The result? Customers can feel good about supporting a business that actively contributes to a cause they care about.

3. Advanced targeting and exclusivity

Like any other industry, there’s a sweet spot when it comes to nonprofit support. Studies have shown that donors who give $250 to $499 per year have the highest donor retention rate of all giving levels. Nonprofits can’t afford to take that kind of support for granted, so they employ a number of advanced stewardship practices to build trust and connection with these donors. Common strategies include everything from one-on-one email outreach and phone calls to ticketed galas for high-level contributors. If nonprofit staff can demonstrate that they know a donor by name and face, fully appreciate their history of support, and value their input on how the organization can strengthen its mission and impact, then it’s likely they’ve already secured the donor’s support for the long-haul. 

One of the most powerful methods of retaining high-level supporters is the utilization of donor societies. Combine the dopamine rush of giving with a feeling of exclusivity and you’ve got a perfect recipe for long-term commitment. A basic search in any CRM will give a nonprofit a list of donors who’ve demonstrated a significant pattern of giving. Those lists can be developed into donor societies by employing a few simple tactics: membership, benefits, and specialized outreach like monthly society newsletters and early-bird specials during perk-based fundraisers.

Dart hitting bullseye.

Just as nonprofits cultivate monthly sustainers and major donors from their larger pool of supporters, businesses can utilize targeted messages and outreach to guide first-time customers to a deeper sense of commitment and repeated patronage. A first-time customer is a bit like a low-level nonprofit donor—the hope is that their first purchase represents the starting point of a long journey of engagement with your business. To foster that journey, your communications should always reflect where your customer is on their personal timeline; somebody who has made 20 purchases should not receive the same thank you message as a first-time customer. Think about ways that you can show recognition and appreciation of your exceptional customers. Let them know that they make your work possible, and that their patronage is enabling your journey, too.

Most email marketing platforms will enable you to develop target groups based on previous activities or demographics. There’s plenty of room to get creative with your targeting, too, like email segmentation features that enable you to filter your recipient list by demographics, spending habits, patterns of behavior, and more.

For instance, a bookseller may find that its most loyal customers are middle-aged women who enjoy books on crafting. They could capitalize on that trend by creating a Crafting Book of the Month email series that is delivered exclusively to women between the ages of 45 and 60.

4. People-centered visual branding

Most nonprofits make sure to capture their impact in numerical terms: 13,000 acres of forest preserved, 350 scholarships provided, 1,000 winter coats distributed, and so on. Those types of figures are especially great for grant applications; a high-level funder is going to want to feel confident that their major gift will go a long way and contribute to something real. However, to the average small or mid-tier donor, highlighting 350 scholarships won’t be nearly as impactful as highlighting real people who’ve received them.

Consider this donation page from She’s the First, a nonprofit that provides scholarships and resources to girls who’ll be the first in their families to graduate from high school. Before you see anything else, you see three smiling faces, inviting you to join the cause. It’s impressive that She’s the First has impacted the lives of over 7,200 girls worldwide, but that information isn’t included as part of the initial pitch. She’s the First knows that its supporters want to feel a connection to the cause that transcends facts and figures. They know supporters become donors when they feel a genuine connection to the people involved.

Giving your products a human face is about more than featuring people in your ads. As previously noted, most consumers want to feel an emotional connection to the businesses they support. One way to generate this connection is to position your product at (or near) the center of meaningful human interactions and activities.

Apple features people using its products.
Via: Crazy Egg.

This example from Apple is exceedingly simple: the image evokes memories of family vacations, and freedom from work and everyday routines. We can all connect to the desire to capture the magic of these moments; even without the benefit of visible faces, these silhouettes tell a story that we all understand.

5. Dependability and transparency

Perception can be everything in the nonprofit world. If a prospective donor feels confident that a nonprofit has a demonstrated history of achieving its mission, they will be that much more likely to give. Nonprofits can succeed in generating this feeling, not only by capturing impact and conveying it clearly to stakeholders, but by being transparent about how their impact is achieved and how their operating funds are spent. 

Similarly, when you’re selling somebody a sweater, your success ultimately relies on whether or not your customer believes that sweater is worth the price. If you’re known for making high-quality apparel that will remain wearable for years, your reputation becomes a strong selling point and adds perceived value to the product. Whatever the case, your standards matter to your customers. Let them know how excellent you are; integrate information regarding your standards of quality into your product descriptions, and feature any related policies on your website.

DSTLD's website features a mission statement of values and quality.

Here’s a page from DSTLD’s website showing off its values, standards, and principles. This page makes a buyer feel confident that they’re getting a high-quality pair of jeans from a company whose values and morals match their own.

Key takeaways

Running a successful nonprofit is a daunting task, but the best ones fuel their missions by tapping into motivations and desires that are uniquely human. The methods used to access these characteristically human emotions are transferable to eCommerce, even for brands that lack concrete goals related to social responsibility and community impact.

  • Identity. Nonprofits recognize that a person’s charitable contributions are an important form of self-expression. eCommerce brands can also help people build their identity by clearly demonstrating how their products fit into a customer’s life and sense of self (or the idealized version of their life and sense of self).
  • Making a difference. Doing good in the world is scientifically proven to make people feel better about themselves. In an age of heightened social consciousness, people expect their favorite brands to make a difference, too. Brands can build customer loyalty by demonstrating how a purchase will make an impact, even if the product itself lacks a specific ethical component.
  • High-level targeting. Nonprofits cultivate relationships with donors through a variety of stewardship methods, including email segmentation and the creation of specialized donor societies. eCommerce brands can utilize the same concepts to build loyalty and guide first-time customers to many future purchases.
  • People-centered branding. It’s essential for nonprofits to encourage a feeling of interpersonal connection between prospective donors and the communities that nonprofits support. One way they can achieve this is by centering individual members of those communities in their donation appeals. Likewise, eCommerce brands can foster a feeling of connection with their products with advertisements that position those products at the center of meaningful human interactions.
  • Transparency. Donors expect the nonprofits they support to clearly demonstrate their impact, how they achieve it, and how contributions are allocated. Similarly, product standards, reliability, and concrete measures of social responsibility are key factors in the development of brand loyalty. eCommerce brands can build their reputation by proudly displaying their standards of quality on their website and in all product descriptions. 
Matt Maggiacomo
Matt Maggiacomo is a writer and digital fundraiser with over four years of executive-level experience in nonprofit management. Matt also spent five years as a touring musician, and has been utilizing digital technology to promote his creative projects since 2001.

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