Constituent Decision-Making Is Muddy Water
We’ve recently gotten our second Pfizer vaccination and are looking forward to doing some of the things we’ve had to forgo for the past year. The day we got “stuck,” I eagerly made a reservation at our favorite restaurant two weeks to the day from our second shot. But as the dinner date approaches, I find myself having some anxiety about going out.
My enthusiasm to return to “normal” life tells a cautionary tale for how nonprofits will begin to move forward in the coming year. Several biases are contributing to my decisions about returning to normalcy and in what time frame. Those same biases impact our decisions about events.
One of my favorite clients, Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., has decided to delay (until July) making a final decision whether or not to hold live events in the fall. At first, I thought maybe they might be playing it too safe. Now I think they’re really smart.
With regard to my restaurant outing, I realized that I had fallen prey to two psychological biases: the “optimism bias” and the “availability bias.” Optimism bias is the belief that things will turn out better than reality might suggest. When optimism clouded my judgment, I wanted things to be better right now, so I assumed they are.
The availability bias twisted my judgment in another way. Novel events can play havoc with our reasoning. Our society has no recent precedent for experiencing the extended lockdowns we’ve all been through. Likewise, we have no recent precedent for emerging from the state we’re in, to place COVID-19 in context as one of many risks we face every day. So my thinking about “going out to a restaurant at the end of a pandemic” was limited by the availability of similar things happening in the past.
The pandemic puts us at a strange crossroads.
The optimism bias leans us one way. COVID-19 infection rates are declining, and millions of people are getting immunized every day now. This makes a more normal fall season seem possible — even likely. But will the past be prologue? It’s hard to shake the fact that restrictions and shutdowns were the rule rather than the exception for more than a year. That’s the experience that’s available to us all now, and the availability bias of that experience will be difficult for us to shake. We’ve all gone through so much anxiety, and for many families, grief. You can feel the weight of it when you get your immunization shot. I had a sense of euphoria; it reminded me of all the things I’ve lost in the past 13 months.
What that means for live events is that these biases may cause people to be less enthusiastic about attending than we, or even they, think they will be. Doing surveys sounds like a great idea, but these biases don’t cooperate very well with surveys. These biases don’t talk and report — they unconsciously influence behavior.
As the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman writes, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality.” Our expectations “are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.” There’s never been a more sustained, emotionally intense experience than what we’ve gone through in the last year. It can make thinking about anything else difficult.
So, the big unknown is how people will respond to the possibility of participating in live events again. The optimist in us thinks that people are “busting at the seams” to come out. But a more cautious approach is warranted. The truth is, we just don’t know the psychology, what people are going to feel like. I’m anxious about our upcoming dinner reservation, although I know from driving past crowded bars that many don’t feel that way. Everyone’s going to be in a different place, which means they will be impacted by their biases in different ways.
For now, Children’s National is moving forward with a “hybrid” plan for its fall events, another smart move on their part. Supporters will have the option of running in Freedom Plaza as they did pre-COVID-19 or participating virtually as they did in 2020. Giving people a binary choice has been shown to play into yet another cognitive bias, the “choice-supportive bias.” This refers to the tendency people have to look at an option more favorably after they’ve selected it. We like making decisions; they give us a sense of “agency,” that we’re in control. And that memory of being in control makes us more satisfied with the choice that we’ve made. We’ve had a profound lack of choice in our personal lives for more than a year.
Finally, Children’s National is smart because they recognize that virtual engagement is here to stay whatever the post-pandemic world winds up looking like. As we’ve written before, the future of fundraising isn’t in focusing on creating events, but rather on creating communities. And the pandemic has shown us that we can create meaningful communities that transcend limitations like geography.
We are definitely going to our favorite restaurant on April 14, two weeks to the day from our second shot... I’m pretty sure. Almost positive.
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.