How Big Is a Volunteer’s Network?
Peer-to-peer is the fast food of fundraising. It is fundraising by the numbers. It is about setting up a system with known drivers and letting that system work. It is big. It is exponential. It is predictable.
One part of that predictability is the leveraging of social networks of supporters and fundraisers. There have to be metrics for the expansiveness of those relationships, right? Knowing how far an individual’s social network extends is useful. But how could we possibly know that? And how, exactly, would we use that knowledge?
I turn to the psych corner with Turnkey’s behavioral expert, Otis Fulton:
Thanks to the work of a British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar, we do know the extent of a person’s social network. In the 1990s, Dunbar found a correlation between a primate's brain size and average social group size. Extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans should be able to maintain 150 stable relationships.
Think of 150 as your casual friends, the number of people you might invite to a large party. It turns out that 150 is an average—the range is between 100 for the most solitary of us, to 200 for the most social. And as you would expect, the specific people in someone’s social group changes over time.
In the past 20 years, 150 has come to be known as "Dunbar’s number." Although 150 is the number most often associated with Dunbar, there is actually a series of Dunbar’s numbers. On the upper end, 1,500 is the average number of people to whom we can match a name with a face. On the lower end, there is five, your close support group, which consists of your best friends and (sometimes) family members.
Dunbar’s number has had a big impact on social media companies, like Twitter and LinkedIn, guiding the way software engineers design these tools. Shouldn’t the use of social media make our social networks larger? You would think so, but research has shown people engaged daily in social media still only maintain between 100 and 200 stable social connections. And a Michigan State University survey of undergraduates’ Facebook use found that although students had a median of 300 Facebook friends, they only counted 75 as actual friends.
When you consider the tool that Dunbar’s number represents in peer-to-peer fundraising, you can use it to do many things:
- Decide if you’ll use a staff person or volunteer committee to coordinate the peer-to-peer fundraising.
- Predict how many teams a single staffer or committee member might be able to recruit using a percentage of Dunbar’s number.
- Decide how big a committee you might need, in order to have enough connections into the community to recruit enough teams to raise the amount of money you want.
- Compose fundraiser training guides with anchors to "normal behavior" in terms of how many people to ask for a donation. "Ask 150 of the people closest to you for a donation." (Good plan!)
Knowing how the peer-to-peer engine runs is imperative to success in peer-to-peer fundraising. Not delving into and understanding the human mechanics behind peer-to-peer would be to put diesel in your gas-powered peer-to-peer engine.
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.