Charlottesville: The Art and the Crime of Polarization
We had planned another blog for today; you’ll see it next week.
We watched in horror as Charlottesville, Va., erupted into violence this past week. Otis graduated from the University of Virginia (UVA) in 1979. There, he met the Dalai Lama, he met students of diverse backgrounds, he played basketball on a diverse team and he became a Buddhist. Friday, he saw the grass in front of the Rotunda trampled by those who would quell any diversity of thought or action.
We realized that we in nonprofit were witnessing something important to us. What we saw accomplished by the alt-right in a stunningly successful way is exactly what we in peer-to-peer fundraising and nonprofit, in general, try to do—create advocates.
The alt-right successfully got people to rally in what they knew would be a fractious environment. They got people to drive long distances to do so. They got people to don apparel and carry signs proclaiming their belief. They allegedly inspired one guy to drive his car into a group of pedestrians, killing one, wounding many and changing his own life forever. Do you think they got them to donate money? You’re damn straight they did.
They accomplished what we seek to do—inspire action, change minds and get donations to do more. Why were they so successful? And why aren’t we more successful? It can’t be that complicated. ISIS does it. The alt-right does it. The Nazis do it. We have to do it better. The first step to that is a full understanding of how these changes occur in a person.
In previous blogs, we have written about the power of “in-groups” and “out-groups” on the way people see themselves. There are literally thousands of studies on the topic. Simply put, people define themselves in terms of social groupings and are quick to denigrate others who don't fit into those groups. Others who share some defining qualities are our in-group, and those who don’t are our out-group.
When we were watching the neo-Nazis march around UVA’s Rotunda carrying torches Friday night, it was hard not to notice how young most of these guys were. They were at the age when most people search for a way to identify themselves as part of a group. Group membership instills them with a sense of personal identity.
Here is the question that can be tough for people who foster and nourish advocates for nonprofit causes to wrap their heads around: What is it that fuels the identity of neo-Nazis and KKK members? Is it—as some of them say—a desire to restore their “European heritage?” No, promoting a positive cause is merely window-dressing. Instead, their in-group identity is strengthened by their extreme opposition to out-groups. Primarily Jews, in the case of neo-Nazis, and African Americans, in the case of the KKK.
A recent study conducted by University of Missouri researchers showed that the effect of in-group identification becomes more intense when people feel that they are increasingly threatened. We turn to those in our in-group when we feel that we may be at risk of some type of physical harm. Other research has shown that people are more likely to categorize others in terms of in-group/out-group when they feel they have something to lose.
For alt-right groups, demonization of “the other” intensifies feelings of identification with their organizations. That’s one of the reasons members of these groups are often so extreme—even violent. Feeling threatened by members of the out-group leads to more intense identification with the in-group. Once this cycle of fear and identity gets started, it escalates. And it’s difficult to stop.
Doing battle with “the other” taps into primitive parts of the human psyche. What can we do to provide an alternative? We have to get better, faster and more sincere about changing minds, not just extracting dollars. And if we change minds, the dollars will follow.
When the mission is separate from the fundraising, we are lost. When our first effort with a potential constituent is about giving us money, we have already failed. When performance metrics for one part of the organization have no overlap with the performance metrics for another part of the organization, we are confused and confusing to those we approach.
Nonprofits can help lead the way out of this horrific mess. We can do it by “in-grouping” on positive attributes. But we can’t do that unless we are willing to do it as aggressively as the other side is “in-grouping” based on negative attributes.
It is time for us to be as aggressive as the alt-right, using the same techniques as the alt-right, but for good. They called the game. Let’s play.
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.