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Surprise – Men, Women Differ In Reaction to Direct Mail Fundraising
Surprise – Men, Women Differ In Reaction to Direct Mail Fundraising

Fundraising approaches are not gender-blind. Research examining reactions to a series of hypothetical solicitation letters from a nonprofit makes a case for testing direct mail copy on the basis of which gender will be receiving the pitch. 

Researchers observed differences in both positive response and fundraising levels to pitches that incorporated two distinct approaches. But an actual fundraising letter, which was used as a control, out-pulled both individual approaches as well as one that combined them. The study’s results were presented during a session at the recently concluded AFP ICON (Association of Fundraising Professionals) conference in Las Vegas.

That session, Gender and Values in Direct Mail Solicitations, was led by co-researchers Ruth Hansen, an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin’s Whitewater College of Business and Economics, and Lauren Dula, an assistant professor at Binghamton University who specializes in nonprofit management, civic engagement, gender and public service. The study was underwritten by a AFP Levis Fundraising research grant.

The study examined two theories of appeal-writing values and perspectives — the “Security” approach and the “Universalism” approach. The Security approach might be classified as defensive. It emphasizes safety, harmony and stability of relationships and the self. Within the Security approach, the focus is on prevention of loss.

In contrast, the Universalism approach takes an open stance toward the world, and with emphasis on understanding, appreciation, tolerance and the need to protect and provide for the welfare of all people and nature. Rather than focus on mitigating loss, it promotes the ideas of gains.

Dula and Hansen investigated whether one of these approaches is more effective than the other. While for a specific nonprofit cause’s direct mail effort there’s no substitution for repeat testing, the study sought to provide general guidance for each approach’s effectiveness depending on the gender of the recipient.

Dula and Hansen created solicitation letters that used a Universalism approach, a Security approach and a mixture of the two. They then collected reactions to these letters from around 1400 individuals, evenly split between men and women. Dula and Hansen sought two essential bits of information: based on each letter, would a recipient be motivated to donate, and if so, how much?

The control letter generated the highest positive response, at 91%, followed by the letter that emphasized Security (90%), the one that contained a mixture of Universalism and Security (88%) and the example that focused primarily on a Universalism approach (87%). Granted, the control letter had the benefit of having been proven in the field.

When the researchers broke responses down between men and women, however, they saw somewhat wider splits. Overall, 91.4% of women indicated a willingness to make a donation, compared with 86.3% of men. But among women, the letter emphasizing Security was most effective at stimulating a potential gift, with 93.3% saying it would do so, compared to 93% for the control. The letter that combined approaches received a positive response from 90.5% of s surveyed, while the letter that used a pure Universalism approach generated a positive response from 89% of women.

More men favored the control letter (89.1%) than any other, and there was a bigger drop-off between it and the other letters than seen among women surveyed. The Security letter generated an 87% “likely to respond” reaction among men, followed by the letter that mixed Security and Universalism approaches (85.8%). Among men, the Universalism approach lagged the field at 84.3%. The respondents were able to give positive reactions to more than one letter, thus the over in statistics.

The researchers saw another split between men and women: the amount they would be willing to donate. The four approaches generated potential donations of $56 from women, compared with $51.10 from men.

But here, too, the three test approaches generated different reactions based on gender. Among women, the approach emphasizing Security was the clear winner, spurring an average potential donation of $55.66, followed by the mixed Security-and-Universalism approach, which pulled a potential gift of $50.44. The Universalism-only approach generated a $45.96 average approach. While Dula and Hansen did not present the results from the control, given that the overall average amount respondents would contribute was higher than any of the three tests, the control remained the version to beat.

The reactions among male survey participants weren’t as dramatically split as those among women. The approach that used both a Security and a Universalism approach pulled an average potential donation of $46.42, followed by the Security approach ($44.14) and the Universalism approach ($42.99).

Dula and Hansen ultimately concluded that emphasizing personal values — the Security and Universalism approaches – are not as important as other elements of a strong fundraising letter. That said, there were some aspects within each gender that might have a damping effect on contributions: men did not respond well, either in terms of overall response or donation amount, to the Universalism approach. And women were more likely to favor the Security approach.

Dula and Hansen noted their research was conducted during a pandemic. Given the initial lack of vaccines for children, Security concerns might have been heightened among respondents.