Another Thing About Why Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Is So Powerful…
This summer, I (Katrina) was in New York City, seeing clients and people whom I hoped would become clients. I was by myself, in between an afternoon meeting and a late evening meeting, looking for something to do. So, I did what people do in New York. I walked. And I walked. And I walked some more.
On the return to my hotel, I went past Penn Station. There was what looked to be a person who was homeless, asking for money and food. I couldn’t help but notice that she looked like she had Down syndrome. My heart stopped. I have a child with Down syndrome. What if she were on the streets? Who would help her? How would she survive?
So, I sprang into action. I had no money on me, having left everything except for my key and one credit card in my room. I turned, rushed to my hotel, up the elevator and into my room. I gathered cash, that apple I hadn’t eaten and the chocolate that was now on my pillow. I went back downstairs and bought a bagel and a bottle of water. I put it all in a paper bag and went seeking the person I so wanted to help.
She was gone.
I was bereft. I wanted to know her. I wanted to see her smile. I wanted to know where she would sleep that night. And, I wanted to feel good –– which helping others almost always makes me feel.
So, now I’m standing on the street with this bag of cash and food and a big cold hole in my chest where I had planned to put a warm feeling. But I knew I could still get that warm glow, even if I couldn’t help the woman I’d hoped to. There were usually lots of people asking for help around Penn Station. I started walking, looking for someone to help.
The first guy I approached was sitting against a concrete wall. As I made eye contact and walked directly toward him, he got up and trotted off.
I kept walking. The second person I tried to help didn’t see me coming, which I think is why she didn’t walk off. But when I addressed her, she immediately cut me off and said, “I don’t want that. I don’t want that. I don’t want that.”
I kept walking. The next person I saw did not move when he saw me coming, nor did he move when I spoke to him. But he wouldn’t speak to me, nor would he take my bag o’ goodies when I offered it.
At this point, I knew I was experiencing a thing, a blog-worthy thing. I had a bit of an epiphany. Here’s what it was:
I was out of context for these folks. They were supposed to be asking me, not me asking them. They were suspicious of my motives, and that made them afraid. I thought to myself, “Is this what direct response feels like when we don’t put ourselves in context? Is this why only one in 2,800 gives a gift when solicited via a blast email campaign? Am I doing non-segmented, non-personalized outreach right now? Am I going in without a welcome series?”
To test my theory, here is what I tried next (I walked around the corner so that my test would be unsullied by my previous attempts). I walked by another person sitting with all their plastic bags around them, and he asked me for money. I said, “I don’t have any money, but someone just gave me this bag of food that I don’t need. You can have it.” His face brightened. He took the bag and thanked me profusely. I walked off. It was a typical exchange I might have with someone asking for money in New York City.
This “giver-of-good-feelings” — my new friend in need — required the correct frame of reference. After many misfires, I gave this gentleman one he could understand and, more importantly, one he could trust.
This experience made me reflect on the power of peer-to-peer fundraising. When a donor gives because a friend asks, the friend establishes the context, creates a frame of reference and conquers distrust in one fell swoop. This is the power of peer-to-peer fundraising. And it’s also an illustration of what we have to overcome in direct response in general.
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.