Overcoming Ambivalence

We’ve all experienced it at some point: the desire to belong but a reluctance to make a commitment. Finding ways to help people overcome this sometimes paralyzing emotional conflict is particularly important to non-profits, who need to build long-term relationships with donors in order to fulfill their mission.

For most of us, the reasons for giving to a charity are simple on the surface, but complex underneath. On the one hand, we seek a worthy cause, and we want to belong to a group we believe is making a difference. On the other hand, we are often conflicted about our own motivations and the motivations of the organizations we support. This results in what sociologist Robert Merton calls “sociological ambivalence” – competing pressures that cause us to experience opposing emotions simultaneously.

Because no one likes to feel conflicted, coping behaviors have evolved that can work against our inherent desire to belong, and to give. These include procrastination, withdrawal, and redirection. All of these mitigate against non-profits as they work to build relationships with donors. Finding ways to overcome this ambivalence is the key to building and sustaining a successful organization.

Iteration Leads to Insight

So what can non-profits do? While every organization is different, research is the key to understanding what causes donors to commit, and to converting someone who might be an impulsive giver to a long-term supporter. The process requires engaging more deeply with people than has traditionally been the case with market research. Insight Communities – those that tap into a population of well-known donors – provide a deeper look into motivations, giving non-profits the tools needed to understand and overcome sociological ambivalence.

But you can’t just ask once and go away. Attention spans are short, and motivations evolve. To provide true insight, the conversation has to be iterative, ongoing, and must engage donors deeply enough to understand the emotions that underlie a willingness to commit (or not) – it has to provide insight to overcome ambivalence. It has to uncover those “moments of truth” which can make people feel closer and more connected to your organization.

Empathy vs. Pity

Sociologists have classified pity as an “ambivalent emotion” – it can have both a selfless and a cynical dimension. In its selfless form, pity can motivate charitable giving. But when it evokes cynicism – “I’m only doing this because it makes me feel good.” – it can result in detachment and a failure to act.

Empathy, involving a close identification with a cause or a needy individual, is less likely to trigger conflict. Non-profits need to cut through the noise and understand how to appeal to donors’ sense of empathy. Research has shown that donors are more likely to feel empathy for a single individual than for a group, and are therefore more likely to act. On the flip side, situations where a needy individual is seen as “one among many”are more likely to generate motivational ambivalence – and inaction. (Perhaps less obvious, but not less important to keep in mind, donors are also likely to be conflicted by multiple appeals from different charities.)

Habit Forming

Our research has found that people start making ongoing, committed charitable contributions by the time they are 35 years old. It’s reasonable to conclude that most Baby Boomers, the youngest of whom are over 50, are by now established in their giving patterns. Millennials, are still evolving and, tend to view charities like they view other passions – subject to change. This is likely attributable to a number of factors, including inundation by social media, short attention spans and, in some cases, a lack of available resources for charitable giving.

As a non-profit, is a challenge. You need to capture donors early and keep them engaged and giving. To do this, you want to make them feel like they belong. How can you encourage belonging? How can you encourage people to feel comfortable, and take the plunge?

One way is to frame your organization as a single coherent entity, so that the group is perceived as an “individual”. A second is to use research to identify the emotional cues that will evoke empathy, removing this obstacle to action. A third is to create space for “personal communities” as vehicles for bridging the divide between personal commitment to a cause and joining a group.

All require the ability to understand what motivates donors and potential donors on an emotional level, and to avoid or address emotional ambivalence. It’s human nature to want to belong, but it’s research that lights the path to productive engagement. Your donors want to belong. You need to understand how to give them a reason to.

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