Why I Care About Your Cause, But Don’t Donate
“So much of the general population has this condition. I know that we’ll be able to get a huge percentage activated to fundraise.”
Thus, begins the path to your personal fundraising hell, begat when you first told your chief development officer what you thought could happen.
My father, Jack Fulton, died four years ago due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. During the last five years of his life, I was his primary support system, taking him to and from doctor’s appointments, coordinating registered nurse visits, going to the grocery store and helping him with all the other necessities, so that he could live in his home.
I became a self-educated lay expert on Parkinsonism. I know firsthand what a struggle it is to care for someone with the disease. After all that, my involvement with nonprofits that deal with the disease has been—zero. Never attended a fundraiser, never donated a dollar.
Psychologists talk about “attitude importance,” the extent to which people attach significance to their attitude and care about it. People who acquire certain attitudes about things from direct experience, rather than indirectly, through the media or other means, tend to have the highest attitude importance. That was me, caring for my father. Nonprofits expend lots of money to raise people’s levels of attitude importance about their causes.
Still, there are lots of people like me that come into contact with a disease or social need, but never take action. How can we explain my lack of involvement?
Despite all my experiences, I never saw myself as someone who supported the effort to cure Parkinson’s. I never had a connection to any organization, like the Michael J. Fox Foundation. No one tried to develop a “donor identity” in me, so I never donated. I received information from Michael J. Fox, the National Parkinson Foundation and others. It described new treatments, new research. Why didn’t all this information spur me to action?
It was always about them, not about me.
What was the message that I needed to hear? Marketing expert Seth Godin puts it simply, “People like us do things like this.” People tend to label themselves in a certain way or with certain ties to their social groups, community or experiences. The more strongly held are the self-beliefs, the more likely they are to behave in ways that are consistent with them.
Although I felt strongly about the issue, I didn’t feel strongly about myself. Without seeing myself as a “Parkinson’s disease evangelist,” I wasn’t likely to evangelize.
The lesson for nonprofits is this: Rather than focusing on the mission’s need or what donors’ gifts can accomplish, make your communication more personal.
“We’re reaching out to you because you’re a caregiver who knows how difficult it can be. Caregivers support other caregivers.”
The way to make it about you is to make it about me first.
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.