How to Conquer Your Biases in Fundraising
Let me tell you a story about in-group/out-group bias.
My husband Otis and I frequently visit a restaurant near our offices in Richmond, Va. This restaurant plates food on the table faster than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Seriously, it only takes 13 minutes for a really good breakfast of eggs, hot cakes, bacon and toast. So, we went there one Saturday with my special needs daughter, Anna. She has Down syndrome and Type 1 diabetes, and is on the autism spectrum. Knowing that this place gets food on the table quickly, we tested Anna’s blood glucose and administered insulin. Forty-five minutes later, still no food. We gave up, threw a fiver on the table for the coffee and bolted to the nearest drive-thru to avoid a glucose-raising meal of saltine crackers.
We went back to that restaurant a few weeks later, without my daughter. Once again, 13 minutes later, we’re having a great meal. A waitress, who was not waiting on us the day we were there with Anna, and who wasn’t waiting on us when we returned, stopped by our table. She said, “I saw you leave suddenly with your daughter. And I had seen you give insulin. I’m so very sorry that happened. Did everything turn out OK?”
This waitress was out-group to Otis and me. We are old; she is young. We are Caucasian; she is Latino. We are white collar; she is a waitress. But now, we had a shared concern—my daughter. Now, she was in-group for me in the most personal of ways. In the moment she became in-group, Otis and I looked at each other and said, “We should hire her.” I mean, what wasn’t to love? She was a great waitress (which I value having worked my way through college that way), kind and articulate, and had a fantastic memory. After some lobbying with the operations officer, she got an interview and nailed it. We didn’t actually have a role we were hiring for, but we hired her and created it.
In-group/out-group bias is a strong thing. The beloved human behaviorist who shares a house with me explains this bias like this:
Oftentimes, when I am going through a crowded airport, I think about how absolutely alien the experience is to the way our brains have evolved. Our brains were shaped over thousands of generations to the particulars of living amongst a small group of people, and living and dying in a small area of geography. In the time it takes to catch a connecting flight, you are likely exposed to more people than our ancestors saw in their entire lifetimes.
On the African Savanna, immediately sizing up someone who looks different from you as threatening was a pretty handy thing. It became part of the human condition. Research has demonstrated over and over again that this bias is automatic, unconscious and powerful.
We don’t live on the savanna any more, but our bias is still with us, getting in the way of success. In-group/out-group bias can hamper our fundraising efforts without us realizing it is happening. Here are some examples:
- "The Latino population just doesn’t really do peer-to-peer events."
- "We have a hard time having diversity in our committees."
- "Our donor base looks pretty homogenous."
How do you conquer this bias, which above is expressed as a given? One way is to create interactions. Create spaces where the leading attribute of a person is not the group (race, height, age, etc.) but a shared concern. What our new employee created in terms of in-group bias, is how people benefit from having been in the same fraternity, having gone to the same college, looking the same way, knowing the same people, even driving the same car.
It would be nice to think that we can conquer our biases by knowing we have them. Biases are pernicious because they are unconscious—they happen outside of our conscious awareness. The result? Most people believe they themselves have no bias. A Carnegie Mellon University study showed that only one out of 661 adults said they are more biased than the average person. Only 0.15 percent of people believe they are more biased than average! I’ve worked my entire life to be unbiased and I fail each day on some level. Our DNA is stronger than our conscious decisions.
The digitization of our behaviors, through channels like Airbnb, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., exposes our biases in a stark manner. As an example, an NPR story showed how in-group/out-group bias is at play in rentals. Quirtina Crittenden is a young African American business consultant from Chicago who noticed that hosts often turned her down when she tried to rent Airbnb accommodations. However, after she shortened her name to Tina, and changed her photo to that of a landscape, she could reliably book travel using the service.
A Harvard Business School study of this problem found that those with African-sounding names who tried to rent an Airbnb were 16 percent less likely to be accepted than those with stereotypically white-sounding names.
As fundraisers, we have to understand, accept and overcome or use human biases to be successful. Or, as we say at Turnkey, ride the wave of human behavior. Don’t swim upstream.
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.