How Asking for Less Will Get You More
A couple of nights a year, I find myself in a smoky, ill-lit bingo parlor not far from my home. I am selling tickets for the games to the 200 or so players in the hall—most of them retirees who are regulars.
I am there to raise money for the local high school athletic program that sponsors these nights and keeps the profits. At the end of each evening, I immediately undress and drop my clothes in the washer to get out the smell of smoke. I ask myself, “How did I get roped into this again?” I know the answer to this question is on the rear bumper of my car—a small, powder blue, three-by-five inch sticker that identifies me as an athletic booster for the high school.
Most of us can identify with this experience: Agreeing to help out with a project or an organization, ending up more involved than we intended and vowing to say “no” to future requests. And yet, here I am, year after year, running tickets for Hot Times, Holy Enchilada and the other games of chance. The truth is, I fell prey to a technique we subscribe to at Turnkey to help our clients raise more money for their various missions.
Research has demonstrated conclusively that if you want people to do a big favor for you, get them to do a small favor first. In his classic book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, Robert Cialdini describes this as the “foot-in-the-door technique.”
Here’s my favorite example of the power of the foot-in-the-door:
Researchers in California posed as public safety officials and asked a group of people to permit them to install a huge, poorly lettered “Drive Carefully” sign in their front yards. They showed them pictures of what the sign looked like installed in front of another home, largely obscuring the view of the house. Only 17 percent of homeowners the researchers approached consented.
Another group was recruited to install the sign, but with a difference. Two weeks prior, they were approached and asked to put a three-inch “Be a Safe Driver” window sticker on their car or front door window. Almost all the people asked to display the sticker complied with this initial, small request. When researchers asked people who had displayed the small sticker to allow them to erect a large, ugly sticker in their front yards, a staggering 76 percent consented. One graduate student assisting in the study who went from house to house recalled, not knowing which homeowner had been asked to display the sticker, “ I was stunned at how easy it was to convince some people and how impossible to convince others.”
There are many examples of the successful use of the foot-in-the-door technique with altruistic behaviors involving charities and public service activities. The Canadian Cancer Society reported a 46 percent success rate soliciting funds in the Toronto suburbs when approaching potential donors directly. When potential donors were asked to wear a lapel pin promoting the fundraising drive (100 percent complied with this request) and then asked for a donation 24 hours later, the number of donors nearly doubled to over 90 percent.
Political campaigns capitalize on the power of making small requests. In one study, a sample of registered voters were approached the day before an election and asked, “Do you expect that you will vote?” All said “yes.” Compared to similar registered voters, those saying “yes” were 41 percent more likely to vote.
At times, the small request seems insignificant, but results in huge changes in behavior. Phone bank staff for a blood drive made reminder calls ending with, “We’ll count on seeing you then, okay?” and then waited for a response. Doing this increased the rate people showed up from 62 percent to 81 percent.
What’s the secret sauce behind the foot-in-the-door technique? To make it work, the initial compliance—putting a sticker on a window, wearing a lapel pin, stating your intention to vote—must be voluntary. When people commit to public behaviors and perceive these (albeit small) acts to be of their own doing, it results in them believing more strongly in what they have done.
Even weirder is the fact that I know when the foot-in-the-door technique is being used on me, and it still works. I still show up every year to Hanover Hawks' bingo games, even though I hate it. I wander up and down rows of bingo players, shouting “Crazy Eights! I got ‘em!” while steeped in smoke and yelled at by angry senior citizens, because I can’t make change fast enough, cursing that damn decal…
The good news is that the technique works great for nonprofits, if planned and used thoughtfully. Ask for a little first. Get a lot later.
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a new book, Dollar Dash, on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
Otis 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 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 also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” 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.