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.
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.