Homer Simpson for Nonprofits
For too long, nonprofit marketers and fundraisers have decided how to communicate based on thinking grounded in direct marketing and economics. The problem with this approach is that it assumes people are coolly logical and make their decisions about supporting a cause based on a rational, linear thought process. We've laid out the cases for why our causes matter based on facts and numbers.
The problem is that most people don't think like Alan Greenspan. They are more like Homer Simpson — limited in attention, over-endowed with impulse and ruled by emotion.
Enter behavioral economics
Behavioral economics is a reaction to this truth. It rejects "rational choice theory" or "rationality" — the dominant theoretical paradigm in economics. When we say rationality, we mean the idea that a person balances the costs against benefits before taking an action and makes the decision that is in his or her best interests. Behavioral economics challenges the notion that people choose the best action or the most logically presented choice and explore the bounds of rationality — identifying social, cognitive and emotional factors that can influence the decisions people make.
The big takeaway? People don't arrive at most decisions through a process of weighing costs against benefits. We are irrational. In their book, "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness," Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein put it simply: Real people make decisions like Homer Simpson, not Spock. (Or Alan Greenspan, for that matter.)
So why is behavioral economics important to nonprofits? For us, these irrational decisions have high stakes. We're not asking people to buy a Coke. We're asking them to protect our environment, safeguard our children, fight for human rights. We're asking them to change the world. Their individual decisions — which often don't take into account one's own best interest, let alone the interest of the greater good — matter a lot. We need to be sure we're asking people in the right way, or their Homer brains might undo our Spock arguments.