How can nonprofits be more persuasive

In this post, I will be reviewing content around conversion hierarchy and persuasion psychology from CXL Institute.

Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg developed the conversion hierarchy which is a pyramid similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Like Maslow’s hierarchy, the conversion hierarchy indicates that only once the needs at the bottom are met, can potential buyers move up to address the next need. So, the hierarchy provides a structured approach to the conversion optimization process where persuasion comes into the picture only after other “needs” are satisfied i.e. the website is technical error free, accessible to all skills and abilities, intuitive etc.

What do these “needs” entail?

  • Functional: Does the website work as expected or is it ridden by bugs and performance issues? Does it render on the popular browsers and devices?
  • Accessible: Can the website be accessed by people with all skill levels and abilities?
  • Usable: Is the website easy to use?
  • Intuitive: A website is intuitive when the user can figure out next steps either from prior experience or with the help of the content and design. Usability and intuitiveness go hand in hand.
  • Persuasive. Do users understand what you offer and is the content persuasive enough to get them to convert?

An optimizer should move up the pyramid identifying potential issues and improvements at each rung of the pyramid. Once the basic issues are resolved, next step involves tackling persuasion.

Principles of Persuasion

While a lot of research has been done in neuromarketing, Dr. Robert Cialdini’s 7 principles of persuasion based on his book “Influence” still holds water. The seven principles are:

  • Reciprocity
  • Commitment/Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Authority
  • Liking
  • Scarcity
  • Unity

I will now explain each of these persuasion principles and how they have been used by nonprofits.


As per the principle of reciprocity, we human beings are basically wired to want to return favors and pay back our debts. People by nature feel obliged to agree with or provide concessions to others if they’ve received favors from them. Psychology explains this by stressing that we humans simply hate to feel indebted to other people!

While there are examples galore from Warby Parker to meal kits delivery services such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh offering free goodies to get users to buy, this principle is being used by some nonprofits in a few different ways.

  • The Brave of Heart Fund is dedicated to providing financial support in the form of charitable relief grants to support the families of healthcare workers who lose their lives to COVID-19. The homepage headline “They protect our families. So let’s protect theirs.” strongly urges visitors to reciprocate the work healthcare workers are doing by donating today.
  • Many nonprofits such as ASPCA and PETA send free calendars, notepads, vegan recipes to their direct mail lists to encourage them to donate.
  • Greenpeace Africa provided complimentary access to the documentary “The Story of Plastic”. By sharing exclusive content, GPAF hopes users will reciprocate by supporting the call to end single use plastics by donating or volunteering.


As per the principle of commitment (or consistency), we humans have a deep desire to be seen as consistent. So, once we commit to something, we are much more likely to go through and deliver on that commitment to remain consistent. In conversion optimization, this could take the form of micro commitments i.e. checkout and sign-up flows are often divided into smaller chunks to get users more “committed” as they continue down the funnel.

In the below example from Greenpeace America, the donation amount options are displayed in the top left on the homepage itself. It’s a subtle display in addition to the prominent orange “Donate” buttons. However, the idea is that users are less likely to change the amount that they have selected on the homepage as they get into the donations flow.

Another way to effectively use this principle is by encouraging users to don identities true to their values such as environmentalist, animal lover, vegetarian etc. Assuming identities will encourage users to act consistently with their value system and encourage them to donate and/ or volunteer. “Vegetarians don’t eat meat.”

Social Proof

Cialdini defined social proof as people doing what they observe other people doing. It’s a principle that’s based upon the idea of safety in numbers. American Cancer Society does a great job in assuring donors and volunteers that they are following in the footsteps of many others, with the following additions on the homepage.

  • Beneficiary Testimonial: This is powerful and brings home the value of the donation or volunteer work.
  • Size of community: 2 millions volunteers strong and counting, world’s largest volunteer based fundraising event which conveys that the volunteer will join an extensive network of existing users and make connections.


The principle of authority essentially states that the average person accepts what a person in authority says without question. People tend to be influenced by who they may see as experts in a field. Authority can be sourced from experts in the field, celebrities, other large partner organizations etc.

As with others, nonprofits can and do benefit from celebrity endorsements. Right from George Clooney to Bono, celebrities have campaigned hard for social causes near to their hearts. Again an example from American Cancer Society’s playbook, which has endorsements via landing pages from celebrities such as Taboo from Black Eyed Peas.


According to Cialdini, “liking” someone increases the chances of being influenced by that individual. Liking is based on sharing something similar with people you like. In the case of nonprofits, a strategy used by some is to make themselves, their origin or the cause more relatable to visitors. For example, Make a Wish’s website shares the touching story of their origin.

Similarly, Doctors without Borders (MSF) has listed movies about them in a bid to give users a view into their world. Heifer Project gives people an opportunity to visit one of their Heifer Village and Urban Farm. Even if website visitors don’t actually have one close by, the page is descriptive and alludes to something more concrete that a visitor can visit some day.


Scarcity is defined as the perception of products seeming to become more attractive when their perceived availability is rather limited. Scarcity is usually created due to a lack of quantity and/ or time. Nonprofits often drive action by making the cause very urgent in the current climate. See the example of a pop-up from Doctors Without Borders website.

Another way to push for users to donate now is to have an attractive matching offer i.e. “Donate by XX/XX/XX and your contribution will be matched dollar for dollar by ABC”. See example from Habitat for Humanity below:

Public radio stations such as KPCC have member drives in which they create urgency by offering gifts to users donating for a limited period of time.


This principle is about creating a shared identity i.e. a sense of unity and belonging. In the example below, Habitat for Humanity has created an exclusivity around their monthly donations program by branding those donors as “Habitat HopeBuilder”.

It is important to note that not all these persuasion principles will work on your users. An organization must understand what drives their users by conducting surveys, user tests and A/B tests. Additionally, there is a lot more research done recently on neuromarketing and psychology especially around the functioning of our brain (primitive reptilian vs. new brain). Hence, there is no one size fits all approach but these provide great starting points for making your content more persuasive.

On the path to learning all things insights and optimization ( | Foodie | Environmentalist| Loves to travel | Player of a few riffs

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store