America's Post-Election 'Self-Medicating' Means Big Things for Nonprofits
The country’s nonprofits experienced a spike in donations after Donald Trump's election. Was it just the most available way to say, “I don’t agree”—or was it more?
Are we "self-medicating" our malaise with our donations? I typically refer to a lovely dark chocolate when I use the phrase self-medicating, but it is appropriate here too. The act of helping others actually makes people feel better.
A Millennial commented on a blog of mine recently. I don’t know if she studies human psychology, but she sure sounds like she does: “I work in nonprofit arts ... I made several small monthly gifts as an act of self-care.”
I don’t think this young person donated to organizations likely to help care for him or her, but instead intuitively knew that he or she would feel better by donating.
Social science has long held that altruism leads to happiness. In this case, people (like me) moribund that our country elected a man (like that) needed a way to feel better even more than they needed a way to protest. And the best way to feel better is to help someone else. I asked my human behavior hubby, Otis Fulton, how that works. The Beloved opined:
There are two types of social rewards: the social rewards we receive when people acknowledge that they like and respect us, and the social rewards we receive when we treat others well.
There is a lot of evidence that people experience altruistic behavior as pleasurable, and that we are “hard-wired for giving.” In the last 20 years we have been able to demonstrate this time and again by putting people in MRI machines and watching what happens in their brains when they behave generously. And it really feels good—neurologically, it is similar to ingesting an addictive drug or hearing that you are holding a winning lottery ticket.
But, for me, that did not explain the uptick in giving since the election. I pressed for more. Otis said:
Well, it is important to identify the types of groups that were the beneficiaries of this sudden outpouring of largesse. This phenomenon has been mostly restricted to social issues groups, like the Massachusetts ACLU, which experienced a 500 percent increase in donations, and California-based Muslim Advocate, which has taken in 50 times the norm.
In his book "Social: Why We Are Wired to Connect," UCLA’s Matthew Lieberman describes how humans divide others into three categories: members of liked groups, members of disliked groups, and strangers.
When disliked groups are seen to gain the upper hand, it threatens the well-being of our in-group, and we support our "tribe" in reaction. Fittingly, the term that has been coined for this type of giving is "rage donation."
So the election provided—for a lot of Americans—a perfect storm of psychological pressures. And, in response, they gave, and are still giving, quite generously to the groups with which they identified.”
Otis helps us understand the sudden outpouring of support, but can this understanding help us even when our tribe isn’t threatened? Turns out it can.
As a fundraiser, here’s how:
- In your copy, your collateral, your brand manifestation, create your tribe—your “liked” group—and celebrate it.
- Define threats to your tribe.
- Ask for money to help.
We know that “woe is me” appeals don’t work. This isn’t that. This is a “they’re coming for us” appeal. And guess what? If you’re reading this publication, “they” may actually be coming for the people your organization represents.
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.