Fundraising Connection: Beware the Survey
My kids would say sometimes I don't listen. And sometimes, I don't.
I watch. For example, my kid says, "I will mow the grass and be most happy to receive the modest stipend you offer for this effort, dearest mother." But after nightfall the grass is uncut. My little survey failed to deliver accurate information. You are thinking, "Your kid is lazy." And, yep, sometimes that is so.
But what really happened is that his Present Self answered the question to the best of his ability. "Not a terrible chore and I need the money," he thought. But his Future Self, who got signed up to mow the grass, did not buy in. "I'm tired. I don't want to take another shower. I don't want the money that badly." Those are effectively two different people with two different sets of circumstances and two different decision-making data sets that led to two different outcomes.
While having a barbecue in the backyard with uncut grass is not a tragedy, planning an event based on information collected in the same way can be.
Last year I attended the newly formed Engage Peer-to-Peer Conference. Lots of really smart people in the peer-to-peer fundraising industry were sharing ideas with great value.
But I kept hearing some phrases in the room that made me wince: "Our fundraisers don't think …" and "Our fundraisers don't want …" and "The feedback I get is …" I interpreted those phrases to mean, "We asked them, and this is what they said, so we took action based on their answers." They were typically talking about Present Self answers.
If we make decisions and plans based on those answers, we are most often surprised and disappointed when the surveyed group does not behave as expected. And, in a worst-case scenario, our "survey" is actually composed of taking phone calls from a few incredibly vocal advocates for the way things ought to be. Reacting to that sort of data is like taking the average height of a basketball team composed of one 8-footer and four 5-footers. That data set does not tell a true story, and if we plan and make decisions based on it, we fail.
Future Self is noble, looking forward to losing weight, curing cancer and feeding the hungry. Future Self is all about "what I'm going to do" and responds that way: "I will raise $5000; I WOULD pay $1000," "I CAN recruit 10 people," "I don't need recognition," "Of course I will participate again next year," etc.
Present Self gets stuck with the bill. Present Self is the one Future Self signed up for the walk, run or ride of choice. Present Self has a work project due, is suffering irritable bowel syndrome, has a hangover and was just recently victimized on some other front by Future Self. Present Self is angry, resentful, unappreciated and tired. Present Self says, "I'm bagging it."
Why is this sort of "would you …" surveying such a poor source of good information? As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains in his book "Stumbling on Happiness," it is easier to remember the past than imagine the future.
Add our well-documented bias for optimism, and resulting information collected from Present Self-friendly surveys and anecdotal conversation is almost worthless. If unrecognized as unwieldy, this collection of information — I can't call it data … it hurts too much — is dangerous to your chance for success.
Highly skilled HR professionals never ask an interviewee, "What would you do in this situation?" The best HR people say, "Tell me about a time when this situation happened to you."
The discussion around Present Self/Future Self is not new nor hard to understand. But the discipline and insight to realize when we are collecting and/or relying on Present Self information is hard. It's hard evaluating what you currently collect to see what you have that is more worthy data. Likely you have sources of info that are better than Present Self information that hits you in the face daily: registration reports, inbound call records, income records, redemption records, donor records, retention records and more.
If we ask people what they WOULD do, what they WOULD prefer, how they WOULD behave, we will not get good information, although you may get the answer you want. Present Self surveys are a failure at best and an effort at subversion at worst. This happens often at budget time, setting up revenue scenarios that are completely unrealistic.
Present Self surveys' best use is for when you are looking for something to test. An idea. Because that is all you're getting: a highly optimistic, noble thought.
So, if you can't plan based on Present Self's answers to questions, what info can you use to plan how to best address your volunteer audience? Two thing: data from the past and study of how humans behave. Data analysis gives you a great idea of what will happen in similar situations, and social science helps you understand why those things happened in the first place. With that information, you can make plans that are likely to work and predict fundraising revenue that's likely to happen.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.