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How does social acceptability of a client population – or its absence – affect how fundraisers craft appeal letters? Research often examines donor behavior as a function of institutional fundraising mechanisms, such as how matching gifts affect donations (Karlan & List, 2007). These studies rarely consider the type of beneficiary or the skills of fundraising professionals. Research on fundraising communication (e.g. Breeze & Dean, 2012) generally focuses within one charitable cause, and does not compare approaches across causes, despite evidence that donors to different causes vary by demographic traits (e.g. Mesch et al., 2006) and dispositional empathy (Kim & Kou, 2014).
Fundraisers exist within a social context; examining how they adapt their practice to social context is important to understanding the profession of fundraising and what it can accomplish (Burlingame, 1997). Stigmatizing processes such as labeling, prejudice, and discrimination can negatively affect an individual’s life prospects (Link & Phelan, 2001). Literature on social stigma suggests that when fundraisers believe the community stigmatizes a client population, they may make different choices both in manifest content and in more latent choices (Goffman, 1986; Holstein, 1993). How do fundraisers negotiate making requests on behalf of those members of society whose presence makes others uneasy?
This study uses an experiment to examine how fundraisers craft appeal letters when client populations are more versus less stigmatized, and follow-up interviews to trace the decision process in crafting the communication (Cresswell, 2014; Lin, 1998). We recruited fundraisers through professional networks. After random assignment, they wrote an appeal letter for a fictional nonprofit serving either a stigmatized population (i.e. mentally ill) or a more socially acceptable population (i.e. older adults). Narrative responses are coded for a priori theoretical aspects and emergent themes. We assessed fundraisers’ perceptions of the level of stigma within the broader community, verifying those with mental illness were seen more negatively than those who were older. We will examine the effect of experimental condition on choices used in the appeal letters. Interviews probed fundraisers’ expectations in writing appeals, and their decision processes for different client groups.
The study contributes to our knowledge of fundraising as it is practiced. A subsequent project will test the fundraisers’ choices for effectiveness in prompting contributions, and for their effects on the readers’ perceptions of the client populations.
Goffman, E. (1986). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, New York: Touchstone. Originally published in 1963.