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Messages That Motivate: The Tailored Approach

Resource Center - Foundation

(April 26, 2011) Are you still using a one-size-fits-all approach to communicate with potential supporters, volunteers and donors? While casting a wide net can work, you will likely lure more people to action using targeted messages.

Management consulting firm McKinsey and Company recently conducted research into the different ways people are motivated by and interact with social causes. Instead of looking for one message that would appeal to the largest number of people, or trying to segment the audience based on demographic criteria like age or income, the researchers identified segments of supporters based on why they decided to support the cause in the first place and their unique ways of getting involved.

Researchers found that among the "involved" U.S. population--the one in three Americans who support at least one social cause--seven distinct needs-based segments emerged. Understanding these distinct groups can be extremely helpful in reaching donors and supporters.

Seven Segments Based on Attitude and Behavior

  1. Community activists are focused on actively helping their communities. They feel a need to give back to society. They are quick to roll up their sleeves and engage in a hands-on way.
  2. Borderline activists feel the need to give back to society, but this does not translate into action. They do not yet see themselves as leaders in addressing a social issue.
  3. Issue-driven activists are focused on broader social issues. They are proactive idealists who feel responsible for helping others no matter how far away. They are more likely to be willing to lead a public debate about an issue.
  4. Quiet followers believe they should help others and that they can be most effective following organizations and those with experience.
  5. Neighborhood supporters are most interested in issues that affect their community and they prefer to help people on a one-on-one basis.
  6. Self-interested actors are concerned only with issues that affect them directly, and feel no broader responsibility to give back.
  7. Pundits are interested in national and economic issues and enjoy activities that allow them to share opinions on issues they care about.

[Source: 2009 McKinsey Public Engagement Survey of 1,540 U.S. adults]

Tailoring Messages for Your Cause

What groups are most likely to be supporters of your organization? What techniques might you use to reel in these distinct segments of supporters groups? Based on their research into segments of supporters, the report gives advice as to how to apply these distinct segments in an effective outreach strategy.

For organizations aiming to cure disease, the reports suggests targeting two segments--borderline activists and neighborhood supporters, because both segments are willing to participate in causes but are hesitant to take the lead. With an organization that is taking the lead in the fight to cure cancer or another disease already established, these two segments are prime candidates to support a cause that is local to them and can be made more personal through effective messaging.

Another example is an organization that addresses environmental causes. Here organizations are more likely to have a diverse supporter base, so multiple messages will be required to meet the various segments. One large group of supporters, though, are the quiet followers, who will not take on leadership roles but will respond to a variety of opportunities (direct mail, magazine coverage) to educate themselves on the issue. Recruiting efforts should then also include segments that are more likely to become leaders, such as community activists.

Using, or simply being aware of, the different segments of donors based on attitude and motivation can help you better tailor your message to potential donors and supporters. Consider the type of supporters that might get involved with your cause. Are they active leaders or are they more likely to collect information and wait for a clear way to get involved? Are they interested in local community issues or are they open to supporting issues happening across the globe?

It is important to determine the groups that are most likely to be receptive to your cause and develop a strategy to best reach them. The report argues that understanding attitudes and behaviors  is more effective than targeting people by age, income or other demographic factors, and it can mean a big savings over other approaches that treat people the same without determining why and how they want to support a cause.

This article is based on a report from management consulting firm McKinsey and Company titled "Building support for your cause," which can be found at

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