How Biology Can Shape Your Fundraising Pitch to Donors
Recently I asked one of those bright young minds in our production department to write a blog. Really, I was looking to get a little sympathy for that unforgiving weekly deadline, hoping I’d get a whiny, “But that’s really hard.”
Color me wrong. Kate Bullard, who identifies as the love child of Zooey Deschanel and Sheldon Cooper from "The Big Bang Theory," helped me to understand the connection between biology and fundraising.
Kate said, with a wide-eyed, unblinking stare and tilt of her head:
I cannot stop thinking about biology, and how biology mimics social psychology concepts. Our biological processes, from simple to the most complex, all have this in common—there is a stimulus and there is a result.
Our most complex functions involve hormones, which drive one of two types of loops: negative and positive feedback loops.
Negative feedback loops inhibit the original stimulus because that stimulus is not desirable. Positive feedback loops encourage the original stimulus to continue happening until an "end" is achieved. These loops happen in the chemistry inside the body, and they happen outside of the body.
Here are some examples of negative feedback loops:
- We are low on food, so we go to the grocery store to stock up.
- Your home thermostat senses a drop in temperature and turns on the heat to reach the set temperature again.
- We are low on blood sugar, so our liver says, "Yes, I know, I’m letting go of some glucose into the blood stream." The low blood sugar led to the body generating a solution.
Humans are biologically and behaviorally driven by what has been lost or is running low. These negative feedback systems account for almost all natural bodily mechanisms and a lot of our behaviors.
And while negative feedback loops are part of our nature and what keeps us safe and healthy, they are literally the "anti" to momentum. In a negative feedback loop, once a problem is solved, the behavior that solved it diminishes.
A question for us—is fundraising a positive or a negative feedback loop?
The way I see it goes like this—at a nonprofit, as fund stores decrease, the push to fundraise increases. Once homeostasis is achieved the push diminishes. Fundraising is strictly financial needs driven.
But what if we were to flip the script? What if we redesigned fundraising as a positive feedback loop? What if we were to encourage momentum by treating the act of fundraising as the end goal? We know that altruism is a DNA-driven feel-good button. We know people who engage in acts of altruism live longer and are happier. What if the living longer and being happier were the goals, and fundraising was the means to achieve that?
Can we establish a self-sustaining process whereby the act of fundraising for a nonprofit yields excitement, pride and love for the mission? What would that look like?
Instead of "We are low on money, let’s raise some funds," let’s flip it to "We are high on progress, mission and purpose, let’s party on in support!"
What Kate espoused here is—there is no other way to say it—wise. It is wise in the Mother Teresa, Mr. Rogers, Jesus Christ, Yoda, Buddha, the Pope, very-old-person kind of way. Her thoughts recognize how altruism makes us feel. It makes us feel good. We like feeling good. Let’s give them more "good."
How does that manifest in real life? Like this. Here is an example of an invitation to donate/fundraise/be part of volunteer leadership:
- Negative feedback loop: “More than 50 percent of the people in our community have unmet need. Will you help?" (At 100 percent, we quit.)
- Positive feedback loop: “We have met 50 percent of the need in the community. We started five years ago at nothing! We are killing it! Wanna come out and play with us?" (At 100 percent met need, we find something else to cure/fix/support because this feels good!)
Altruism feels good. Let’s create some positive feedback loops with it that don’t diminish over time the way negative feedback loops do.
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 degrees in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and 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.