Next-Level Fundraising with Nonprofit Psychology

If we believe Hollywood, psychology consists of a person lying on a couch and talking about their feelings, complete with a man with a mustache and an accent sitting behind a desk listening. If you Google the word “psychologist,” the image that pops up is almost exactly that. (What comes to mind when you think of “nonprofit psychology?”)

The truth is, this Freudian stereotype is only one part of a much larger field of study. To boil it down, psychology is simply the study of why. It takes seemingly insignificant, everyday things – how we talk to one another, what we do and the way we think – and tries to explain why they happen.

There are countless studies and experiments out there. Many of these can be used in your day-to-day life. We took a deep dive and came out with some findings and theories that can be applied to the nonprofit world. Check them out and see what works for you.



As a nonprofit, you spend at least some of your time as a teacher, educating people about a problem and what your organization does to solve it. If you were looking to find the “best” teaching method, you would have had a hard time finding a definitive answer.

In the last 15 years, researchers have gotten a much better understanding of how we learn, which has allowed people to apply new methods that help teach more effectively. Because of this, we’ve since seen a shift in schools from a recite-and-memorize method to teaching a more conceptual understanding of subjects in an engaging manner.

One interesting finding is that the human brain actually learns best in relaxed concentration. That may sound like one heck of a buzzword, but it basically means that people retain new information when their body is relaxed but still alert enough to be engaged.

When talking to people, whether they’re potential donors or the community, don’t shock them or jar them to the point where they’re anxious and can no longer concentrate on what’s being said. Make sure the environment you’re meeting in is comfortable for who you’re speaking to. Don’t overwhelm them – speak calmly, especially if you’re meeting over the phone.


Principles of Persuasion

Dr. Robert Cialdini has been teaching psychology for more than 30 years, but his biggest influence on the field is his 1984 best-seller Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In the book, he boils his findings on persuasion down to six principles.

One of the more notable principles is called social proof, or social influence. According to Cialdini, people’s actions are largely influenced by others around them. It’s the tendency to reflect a behavior in a given setting; doing something because others are doing it. For example, laugh tracks are added to comedy shows to encourage laughter, tip jars on coffee shop counters are rarely found empty even before a customer has tipped, and nightclubs have people line up outside to make the venue seem more popular.

When you’re developing marketing materials, keep this principle in mind. Use quotes, testimonials or pictures to show that people have already agreed to support your cause and can vouch for the impact you have. This creates a level of clout for your organization that can persuade people to give.


Get Specific

These general, broad-appeal studies are great, but studies done specifically on your cause are more useful. The American Psychological Association keeps a list of nearly 60 topics, each with a dedicated page that’s updated regularly with recent news and publications. You can also do some testing and trials of your own for primary research of sorts.

Research on nearly any topic can be found, from early childhood development to education to addiction recovery. Many studies that seem unrelated at first glance may actually turn up a vital statistic or theory that will change the way you do or think about your job.


Keeping tabs on the latest psychology news can both affirm what you already knew and challenge your way of thinking. You don’t need a degree in psychology or years of experience, there are little takeaways waiting for you that will put your organization on the next level if you pay attention.

nonprofit psychology

Austin Heineman

August 12, 2016

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