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Using Identity to Secure Nonprofit Donations

Using Identity to Secure Nonprofit Donations

Close up picture of people supplying others with packaged food

By Karen Page Winterich and Americus Reed II

Individual charitable giving in the United States reached a record high of $324.1 billion in 2020, growing 2.2% from 2019 during a year beset by a global pandemic and racial turmoil. The donations, however, were split among more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations, all competing for dollars, time, and other gifts.


Individual nonprofits might be lucky to launch one successful charity campaign, such as the viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Most simply seek to maintain steady donations year-over-year.

To boost their donation rate, nonprofits must ensure potential donors identify with their charitable appeals. The following five research-based strategies can allow nonprofits to use identity to increase charitable donations and remove the guesswork from their campaigns.

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Make It Moral

Extensive research has shown that social identities, the categories into which people place themselves based on profession, gender, family, and religion, influence behavior. Individuals also have moral identities, which define the extent to which traits like being kind are important to them.

Research has found that moral identity affects charitable giving. Reed, Aquino, and Levy (2007) find that those reporting a strong moral identity believe giving time is more ethical than giving money. Importantly for nonprofits, even consumers not consistently valuing moral traits can shift donation patterns when the traits are made salient, such as in donation appeals referencing kindness and compassion.

In their 2007 study, Reed and colleagues found individuals were 458% more likely to donate time than money when the researchers made moral traits salient by asking participants to donate to a moral organization, such as the American Red Cross.

In a recently published Journal of Marketing Research study, Shang et al. (2020) found donating reduced the gap in participants’ desired level of moral identity versus what they perceived as their actual moral identity. The change subsequently increased participants’ donation amount.

Gender Matters

In Shang and colleagues’ 2020 research, eliciting moral identity in donation appeals boosted giving among males and females differently. Women, socialized to be communal, nurturing, and interdependent, tended to find giving reinforced their moral identity more than it did for men. In a field experiment, women calling into a nonprofit radio station fundraiser increased donations by 21% on average when the experimenter answering the phone said, “Thank you for being a caring and helping [station name] member.”

Gender also affects donation targets. Because women tend to place greater importance on relationships than men do, they typically show moral regard to a broader circle. Winterich, Mittal, and Ross (2009) found women therefore donated more than men to outgroup individuals. The researchers asked American study participants to donate to Indian Ocean Tsunami victims or Hurricane Katrina victims or make no donation. Women with a self-reported strong moral identity donated nearly twice as much to the outgroup Tsunami victims than did men with a self-reported strong moral identity. Both men and women donated equally to Hurricane Katrina victims. Nonprofits must therefore align their donation appeals with their targets, heightening moral identity particularly among women when the recipient may be perceived as an outgroup.

Hit a Moving Target

Nonprofits sometimes find it challenging to encourage consumers in developed countries, such as the United States, to donate to individuals in developing countries. However, Wang, Kirmani, and Li (2021) recently found the number of residential moves a person makes in a given period of time can increase outgroup donations.

When the researchers asked U.S. residents to donate to hungry children in another country, participants who had moved donated 40% more than did those who had never moved. The researchers suggest the increase occurred because consumers with great mobility have a strong global identity, seeing themselves as world citizens and donating accordingly.

Match Identities

Just as individuals donate more to ingroups than outgroups, donors are more likely to give when they identify with a charity than when they do not. For example, university students in one study were more likely to purchase a product when it precipitated a donation to a local charity than when the donation was made to a non-local charity or the purchase price was discounted (Winterich and Barone 2011). In other words, the individuals preferred a donation to a discount, but only when they identified with the receiving charity.

Winterich and Barone suggest that, fortunately, all consumers represent a multitude of target markets, as they hold an array of identities, such as those pertaining to their alma mater, profession, gender, and hobbies. Charitable organizations must therefore identify and target the identities aligned with their mission.

In addition to identity congruence with a charity, consumers’ identity congruence with other donors can influence giving. During another public radio station fundraising experiment, Shang, Reed, and Croson (2008) told new call-in donors that a separate male or female member contributed $240. Participants’ donations increased by 27% on average, from $105 to more than $140, when the stated gender matched their own.

Motivate with Recognition

Donor recognition can be costly. One study found that approximately 50% of givers donate without requiring recognition (Winterich, Mittal, and Aquino 2013). Nonprofits should therefore not use their limited resources to recognize such individuals.

However, a segment of givers motivated by recognition exists among the remaining 50%. According to the 2013 study, the individuals tend to report a strong moral identity rooted in the social expression of their morality to others. Notably, the researchers point out nonprofits can motivate the individuals to donate through low-cost recognition channels, such as social media posts.


Identities drive many individuals’ behaviors, including donation decisions. When donors value morality or are prompted to think about being kind, donations increase. Nonprofits should therefore use morality-priming language in donation solicitations, particularly when targeting women. Individuals are more likely to donate when they identify with a charity, the recipients, or even other donors. And when nonprofits seek donations for outgroups, they are likely to be most effective when targeting women and individuals with high residential mobility. Lastly, not all donors are motivated by recognition of their efforts, but nonprofits can offer it at minimal cost to motivate those seeking to demonstrate their morality to others.

Author Bios

Karen Page Winterich is Gerald I. Susman Professor in Sustainability and Professor of Marketing at the Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania. 

Americus Reed, II is Whitney M. Young Jr. Professor and Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Winterich, Karen Page, and Americus Reed II, (2023), “Using Identity to Secure Nonprofit Donations,” Impact at JMR,(April 11, 2023), Available at:


Reed, Americus, Karl Aquino, and Eric Levy (2007), “Moral Identity and Judgments of Charitable Behaviors,” Journal of Marketing, 71 (1), 178–193.

Shang, Jen, Americus Reed, Adrian Sargeant, and Kathryn Carpenter (2020), “Marketplace Donations: The Role of Moral Identity Discrepancy and Gender,” Journal of Marketing Research, 57 (2), 375–393.

Shang, Jen, Americus Reed, and Rachel Croson (2008), “Identity Congruency Effects on Donations,” Journal of Marketing Research, 45 (3), 351–361.

Wang, Yajin, Amna Kirmani, and Xiaolin Li (2021), “Not Too Far to Help: Residential Mobility, Global Identity, and Donations to Distant Beneficiaries,” Journal of Consumer Research, 47 (6), 878–889.

Winterich, Karen Page, and Michael J. Barone (2011), “Warm Glow or Cold, Hard Cash? Social Identity Effects on Consumer Choice for Donation versus Discount Promotions,” Journal of Marketing Research, 48 (5), 855–868.

Winterich, Karen Page, Vikas Mittal, and Karl Aquino (2013), “When Does Recognition Increase Charitable Behavior? Toward a Moral Identity-based Model,” Journal of Marketing 77(3), 121–134.

Winterich, Karen Page, Vikas Mittal, and William T. Ross, Jr., (2009), “Donation Behavior toward In-Groups and Out-Groups: The Role of Gender and Moral Identity,” Journal of Consumer Research, 3 (2), 199–214.