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.
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.