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  • 17th Jul 2023

Applying behavioural insights in community-based organizations

Three ways nonprofits can apply BI

Nonprofits of all sizes can generate meaningful benefits from applying behavioural insights (BI), from increasing charitable giving to growing program enrolment, and more

BIT Canada’s work with United Way Halton & Hamilton (UWHH) further demonstrates this. We began partnering with UWHH in 2020 to understand how behavioural insights could improve the organization’s Financial Empowerment and Problem Solving Program (FEPS). 

Over three years, we helped Halton families access more than $67,000 in tax benefits and refunds with a behaviourally-informed email, learned more about effective tools to reach program participants, and built the capacity of FEPS leadership and staff to apply behavioural insights to their roles. Read the report here for more about our partnership.

Our work together also shed light on considerations for the entire sector. While finding time or resources to invest outside of service delivery is challenging for nonprofits, the BI approach is practical, proven, and inherently human-centred. We believe it is an investment worth considering, as it should ultimately help staff achieve their goals with less effort.

Plus, there is vast potential for virtually every community-based organization to apply principles inspired by BI. These are a few immediate opportunities we see.

Improving communications

Removing barriers in communications to staff, donors, and program participants is critical for organizational success. BI principles can be applied to almost any non-profit communication to enhance the chances that it achieves its intended purpose. UWHH’s email trial above is a prime example.

Organizations could consider leveraging other evidence-based principles such as trusted messengers to convey key information, using plain and simple language to make messages easy to read and act on, and using prompts to help people plan out what they’ll do.

Removing sludge

Sludge” is what we call the unintentional excessive burdens or frictions that make it more difficult to access services and opportunities—things like poorly designed forms or repetitive paperwork requirements. 

Sludge hurts everyone, but disproportionately affects disadvantaged groups. It is a hidden tax on those who need to access programs and services. It takes valuable time and limits access.

Using a BI lens to audit processes for unnecessary steps or frictions is the first step to making services and programs accessible. For example, does signing up for a program require multiple forms of identification when just one might do? Or does an online application require extra clicks to advance to the next step?

Reviewing (and resetting) defaults

“Defaults” are what you’re automatically opted into unless you choose another option. They make a course of action easier, as people tend to only make decisions when necessary. 

For instance, if someone donates to an organization, they might initially be opted in to make their gift recurring. That way, the donor doesn’t need to think about whether to give again, it just happens.

Nonprofits should review their programs, services, and processes and identify current defaults. For example, if someone has an initial meeting with a financial counsellor, do they need to take action to book a second meeting, or is it scheduled for them by default?

We should apply BI together

Behavioural insights and social innovation hold great promise for the nonprofit sector. While BI can be applied to individual organizations’ communications and processes right away and at relatively low-cost, we believe its true potential will only be realized if nonprofits work together at a much larger scale.

Building coalitions and partnerships can help address barriers to BI and take the sector forward. Imagine: a coalition of nonprofits shares the costs of technical expertise on BI projects whose results will benefit everyone involved; a national nonprofit conducts an experiment with thousands of participants, and shares its findings widely; an existing community of practice invests in training members in key BI principles. These are just a few ways this vision can come to life. 

If you’d like to learn more about UWHH and BIT’s work together, read the full report here.  If you want to explore how your organization can help achieve the promise of BI at scale in the nonprofit sector, get in touch with