Why We Give in Kansas City

Why do people give their money and time to charities? How do these motivations shape perceptions of non-profit brands? And how can charities use these factors to build a healthy brand?

These are some of the questions that underlie work idealect has been doing over the last few months for Ronald McDonald House Charities Kansas City. I’ve written previously about the initial qualitative research, but last month I got to nerd out on some fresh data about charitable engagement in Kansas City. The findings have important implications for any nonprofit looking to grow its donor and volunteer base here.

Charitably Engaged

idealect fielded a survey of people in the Kansas City region who had donated to or volunteered with a charity in the last year (496 valid responses in total). The respondents represented a good distribution of genders, generations, and household incomes.

Kansas City charitable engagement survey respondents

While all of the respondents engage with charities to some extent, not all of them engage with local charities. Overall, about 73% of Kansas City’s charitably engaged population are active with local charities. Among those who engage locally, donors outnumber volunteers nearly 2 to 1. There is considerable overlap, though. More than 90% of volunteers are also donors.

Volunteers truly are a scarce resource. Even among the charitably engaged, only about 40% had volunteered for a local charity at all in the last year. Fewer people, less than 7% of respondents, volunteer monthly or more frequently.

charitable engagement in Kansas City


We were curious to know if the priorities and motivations of local respondents matched data we’ve seen from national studies and reports. The top two priorities are perhaps unsurprising, children’s charities and animal welfare (“kids and puppies”), but the overall ranking of priorities stands in contrast to some of the national research and giving trends. In particular, faith-based charities rated as a lower priority locally than I expected based on national data (and my 28 years of living in KC). Higher education and international charities also received a lower priority rating than I had expected based on national giving trends.

charitable priorities in Kansas City

We also saw important differences in charitable priorities across generations. This was most obvious in support for children’s charities, which seems to track with life stages. As Millennials become parents, children’s causes become a dominant priority, and that priority drops off among older generations.

generational differences for select charitable priorities

Priority is Not Preference

Because we wanted to understand Ronald McDonald House Charities Kansas City’s position against “competitors” for charitable engagement, we asked our respondents to rank their choices for donating and volunteering among select local charities. The rankings for donating and volunteering were surprisingly consistent, with the top two charities and the lowest-ranking charity the same across both questions.

In a curious contradiction, the rankings did not line up with charitable priorities. The top-ranked charities provided food and housing. The last-ranked charity provides support to kids in underserved communities. Why, when children’s causes rate as most important, does a child-centered charity rank last on the list? FWIW, “puppies” also ranked near the bottom too. Some of this gap may be explained by brand recognition and perceptions, but the underlying contradictions merit some future exploration.

Familiarity Breeds Respect

We asked respondents to rate their level of familiarity with Ronald McDonald House Charities Kansas City, and we saw a strong correlation between familiarity and ranking. The more familiar people are with the organization, the higher they rank it.

charitable ranking and familiarity

This is exactly the kind of positive correlation you would hope to see. After all, if your organization is effective and the experience you give to donors and volunteers is positive, you’d expect that as they become familiar with you, they’ll be increasingly inclined to give or volunteer. For me, this correlation shows two things. It affirms that Ronald McDonald House Charities Kansas City is an effective organization that aligns with people’s priorities and delivers a positive experience to volunteers and donors. It also underscores the importance of communicating your social value proposition and mission to a wider audience to build familiarity.

Understanding the Mission

To further test familiarity, we asked our respondents to articulate the mission. An impressive 52% of the responses captured the key elements of the mission–that it helps families of ill children. But that still leaves almost half the charitably engaged population of Kansas City that does not know what the organization does. Responses from these people included adoption (Wendy’s?), food distribution (naturally), housing (it’s in the name), domestic violence prevention, and of course, “don’t know.” The opportunity to help people understand and articulate their mission more clearly turns out to be important because it is strongly linked to charitable preference.

describing Ronald McDonald House’s mission

Net Promoter Scores

A key objective of this research was to create a benchmark to assess brand health. We adapted the Net Promoter Score (NPS) model to gauge how likely people are to recommend Ronald McDonald House Charities Kansas City to potential donors, volunteers, and families in need of help. NPS is used across a range of industries as a measure of brand health and customer satisfaction.

It’s not as commonly used for non-profits, and using it with a broader population than customers is not standard. However, it’s a widely accepted and well-understood benchmark, and it has the advantage of being easy to implement. So, we felt it could serve as a useful, ongoing tool to measure changes in perceptions of and willingness to engage among the local charitable community.

Across all three recommendation questions, Ronald McDonald House Charities Kansas City earned scores that most for-profit brands would envy. But, here too, we saw important differences between people who were familiar with the organization and those who weren’t. There was an obvious correlation between familiarity and recommendation score. People who rated themselves as “Extremely Familiar” had average scores in the Promoter Range. People who rated themselves as “Not at All Familiar” averaged scores in the Detractor range.

correlation between familiarity and recommendation

People who currently volunteer with or donate to the organization averaged almost two points higher in likelihood to recommend for donating and volunteering. When it comes to articulating the mission, people who said they didn’t know it were the least likely to recommend Ronald McDonald House Charities Kansas City for any of the scenarios, while those who articulated it correctly were among the most likely to recommend. Familiarity, personal experience, and mission understanding are all strongly, positively correlated with likelihood to recommend.

What It Means

For local charities looking to build engagement, this data illuminates and underscores some important truths. First, ensuring that the charitably engaged community understands your mission and the people you serve is the foundation to building engagement. Familiarity and the ability to articulate your mission translate into more donors and volunteers.

Second, designing an experience that inspires donors and volunteers to recommend your organization leads to wider engagement and support. Volunteer experience is especially important to charitable brand health, because volunteers are also donors, and engaged volunteers are your best recruiters.

Third, understanding the charitable priorities of your local community and how your organization supports those priorities is important. Understanding that those priorities don’t necessarily translate into preference is equally important.