How Behavior Leads to Belief
At Turnkey, we often say, “Behavior leads to belief.” I am glad that we are typically on a webinar when we say that, as the phrase is often met with disbelief. I present at my best when the eye-rolling is invisible to me.
What we mean by that phrase is that if we can elicit a behavior from an individual, that individual will form a narrative about why that behavior makes sense.
For example, if you register for your fundraising walk two months earlier than in the previous year because you were offered a reward for doing so, your mind will reframe your level of affinity to the organization hosting the walk. Your conversation with yourself sounds something like this, “Well, if I registered this early I must clearly be committed to this organization.” The mind will forget that it was prompted to action by an offer of recognition. What matters to the mind is the behavior itself.
I asked Otis Fulton, our in-house psychological expert, to find a great example outside of peer-to-peer fundraising to share.
Dr. Amy Cuddy is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Her 2012 TED presentation on what she called “power poses” is among the most viewed TED Talks of all time and demonstrates “behavior leads to belief” magnificently.
Her own story, now familiar to the 20-million-plus viewers of her TED Talk, began after she was thrown from a car during an accident at age 19. She was a student at the University of Colorado, and doctors told her she might struggle to regain full mental capacity and finish college. The brain injury she sustained caused her IQ to drop by two standard deviations. Nonetheless, she worked her way back to academic excellence at graduate school at Princeton. All the time, she suffered from the feeling that she was an impostor; that she was unworthy of being a student at an elite university.
She was so afraid to give her first-year talk as a Ph.D. student, she told her adviser she was quitting. Instead, she feigned confidence all the way to her current faculty position at Harvard. “Fake it till you become it” is her mantra. Her latest research illuminates how “faking” body postures that convey competence and power (power posing) configures our brains to better cope in stressful situations. As David Brooks summarized her findings in The New York Times, “If you act powerfully, you will begin to think powerfully.”
Otis concluded, “The idea that behavior shapes one’s attitudes seems counterintuitive. But when our beliefs are weak or ambiguous, that is exactly what happens. We evaluate our own attitudes in the same way we evaluate those of others—by watching what is said and done. Hearing yourself speak informs you about your attitudes; seeing your actions provides clues to how strong your beliefs are.”
What if we changed the way we structured our goals? Right now, just about all of our marketing efforts and much of our fundraising efforts are really just measurements of how people feel about our organizations. If they register for our event, that is a measurement. If they fundraise, that is a measurement. If they give, that is a measurement. Measuring has no impact.
What if we began to treat our communications, indeed all our touches on our constituents, as opportunities to elicit behaviors, which would help them gain the idea that they were tight with our mission? What if that idea—elicit behaviors—was the driving force behind event structure, marketing and communications campaigns, mission and leadership volunteerism, everything? What if the only goal were to elicit behaviors, which would lead to belief? What if all your targets simply believed in your mission more? What might you achieve?
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.