Charitable Donors are Drawn to Messages of Independence, New Study Finds

Nonprofits should focus donation appeals on impact and hope, according to research co-authored by associate professor of marketing Jonathan Hasford.

June 15, 2023

During a crisis, many individuals and communities rely on nonprofit organizations for assistance. When rallying support from donors, nonprofits often position their charitable efforts as fulfilling the most pressing short-term needs. But is this strategy — called an immediate aid appeal — always the most effective approach?

A paper co-authored by Jonathan Hasford, associate professor of marketing at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, Stacie F. Waites (University of North Carolina Wilmington), Adam Farmer (University of Alabama) and Roman Weldon (Ph.D., ‘22, Indiana University) explores an alternative to immediate aid appeals — autonomous aid appeals. This approach promotes using donations to help recipients become self-sufficient.

Emphasis on Autonomy Increases Donations

Hasford and his co-authors conducted multiple studies of real nonprofit organizations and actual donation behavior. Through these studies, the authors found that messages emphasizing a recipient’s self-sufficiency were far more effective than appeals focused on immediate relief.

In one study, the researchers partnered with a nonprofit that provides resources for people experiencing homelessness in rural areas of East Tennessee. The team found that households receiving an autonomous aid appeal were 189 percent more likely to contribute — and gave an average of 79 percent more money — than those that received an appeal for immediate aid. Hasford says, “When the charity emphasized that donations would be used to help recipients become independent, it received over 400 percent more money in donations [compared] to immediate aid appeals.”

A closer look at different types of autonomous aid appeals found those emphasizing the need for recurring help were less effective than those requesting a one-time donation. The research team believes this is because donors want their gifts to contribute to recipient’s independence, and when organizations ask for recurring support (such as ongoing medical therapy) rather than temporary assistance (such as a one-time treatment), donors infer that the recipients are unlikely to achieve self-sufficiency.

Practical Implications for Nonprofit Campaigns

Donors get an increased sense of self when given the opportunity to help someone become more independent, the researchers say. To benefit from that tendency, nonprofits can make their immediate aid appeals more effective by using language that focuses on impact and hope. Hasford says, “In those studies, we specifically used messages like, ‘Give hope!’ or ‘Make an impact on those in need!’ to make the study participants feel more hopeful or think their donations were more impactful.”

Organizations can benefit from employing a variety of aid appeal strategies. A nonprofit holding a clothing drive, for example, could use immediate aid appeals to highlight how donations will help recipients stay warm in winter. Autonomous aid appeals for the same event could position the drive as providing interview clothes to help recipients find jobs and gain self-sufficiency.

The research is already benefiting communities in need. Based on the study, the East Tennessee organization that focuses on homelessness has changed the positioning of its donation appeals to emphasize autonomous aid. “This nonprofit’s managers have implemented a complete redesign of their website and blog and shifted their approach to appeals placed on social media,” Hasford says. “By doing so, they have seen a significant increase in donations year-over-year and plan to continue shifting all remaining consumer touchpoints to focus on autonomous aid appeals.”

The paper, “Teach a Man to Fish: The Use of Autonomous Aid in Eliciting Donations,” was published in the Journal of Marketing Research.


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist,