How many of us have heard “underserved youth” or “violent inner-city schools” in situations that describe students of color or students from low-income households? What could happen if we focused on what’s possible instead of what’s lacking? While focusing on what’s missing might sometimes work to open wallets, it can often stigmatize the students at the heart of our mission and reinforce damaging bias. This type of deficit-framing language positions students as the problem, while ignoring the systems that created and perpetuated the problem.
As an organization that fundraises on behalf of teachers and students, we recognize our power to create and reframe narratives about education to the public. By using asset-framing, we can challenge stigmatizing cultural narratives around students, and encourage the public to help those students reach their goals and aspirations.
“Asset framing is defining people by their aspirations and their contributions, then acknowledging the challenges that often extend beyond them, and investing in them for their continued benefit to society.”
—Trabian Shorters | Founding CEO, BMe & DonorsChoose Board Member
We teamed up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to test the effectiveness of asset framing in email fundraising
Through a series of donation appeal email experiments, we tested different framings (asset, deficit, neutral) in combination with different content themes. To control for the effect of match offer campaigns on donor behavior, every email included a promo code doubling the recipient’s donation, backed by a $500,000 grant from the Gates Foundation.
Experiment 1: Can asset-framing compete with deficit-framing when asking for donations ?
Pervasive nonprofit lore holds that the best way to inspire action is to elicit guilt and sadness by highlighting the pain and suffering of constituents. But does this assumption actually hold water? First, we needed to test if asset-framing could ever outperform this deficit-framing language.
We sent 6 different versions of a fundraising appeal — 2 asset-framed, 2 deficit-framed, and 2 neutral-framed — to a random selection on 511,000 DonorsChoose donors.
Experiment 1 Results
Top performing email: neutral-framed description of the time of year
Tied for second: asset-framed description of student attributes associated with learning and deficit-framed description of student experiences associated with a lack of supplies
While the neutral framing won out overall, we were happy to see that the asset-framed and deficit-framed messages performed similarly. This finding indicates that asset-framed appeals can be as compelling as deficit-framed appeals, and are worthy of further experimentation.
After analyzing the results of experiment 1, we were particularly curious to explore the other factors that contributed to engagement rates — specifically, how different themes of content interplay with different types of framing.
Experiment 2: What content themes make asset-framed appeals most effective?
For the next tests, we ran an even more granular experiment, sending 15 emails to 1.2 million donors. We created five content themes and wrote three emails (asset, deficit, neutral) for each theme.
Experiment 2 Results
Content theme 1: Describing constituents
In our emails using adjectives to describe students, asset framing drove the highest engagement, but deficit framing drove more overall donations.
Content theme 2: Scoping the need
In our emails sharing the number of teacher resource requests, asset framing again had higher engagement rates and a higher conversion rate, while deficit framing inspired more overall donations.
Content theme 3: Passing the mic
In our emails quoting teachers, deficit-framed teacher quotes won on nearly all factors, though asset-framed teacher quotes led to a higher average donation size (but less funding overall).
Content theme 4: Humanizing the issue
In our emails telling stories about students, neutral and deficit framing performed similarly, with neutral framing driving slightly more conversions and deficit framing driving slightly more donations.
Content theme 5: Explaining systemic factors to inequity
In our emails stating that public school funding is inequitable, neutral framing prevailed in almost every metric.
In analyzing these results, interesting trends around donor responses emerged.
Donors who were already highly engaged in our platform (multiple past donations) seemed most responsive to asset framing on a whole. This leads us to believe that higher engagement correlates to a better understanding of the core problem our org seeks to solve, making them more responsive to a vision of a better future.
Donors who had not given to our site in more than 2 years converted at similar rates across framings, with a slight lean toward neutral framing. These donors likely have the least connection to us and our cause, and presenting our problem statement the most objectively seems to be a promising approach.
Donors who are averagely engaged were split evenly between asset and deficit framing, and responded least to neutral framing.
While no single “silver bullet” fundraising appeal rose to the top, this set of results showed us that asset-framed appeals can be at least as effective as deficit-framed appeals, when deployed with the right content and to the right audience.
We have so many more questions and experiments we want to run and are greatly inspired by our early learnings. Based on our first year of experimentation, we’ve developed the following list of recommendations for other nonprofits looking to implement asset framing in their donor fundraising emails.
When garnering donations & engaging audiences, the following asset-framing approaches are shown to be effective & are a terrific starting point: a. Describe the people who will benefit with accurate, positive attributes b. Frame data to show the proactivity of the people who will benefit (in addition to the need)
Donors who are already engaged with your mission may be the most receptive to asset framing
Use a variety of approaches, and don’t rule out neutral framing!
Looking to the future, we want to try out more content approaches, branch out beyond email to SMS and ads, test imagery, along with learning from industry peers taking a similar approach.
Interested in partnering with DonorsChoose to support teachers? Contact us!