Donor Compliance: How My Experience Inspired a Fundraising Epiphany
The Beloved (Otis Fulton, my co-author on almost everything and our human behavior expert) and I are in Paris for my birthday. Paris is the city of Jason Bourne movie police sirens, tiny streets, impossibly cute children, thin people and few Americans (at least these days).
We don’t “tour” much, as our preference is to house ourselves in neighborhoods, eat at modest restaurants, meet locals, etc. But I knew that if I did not see the Eiffel Tower, I would be sent back to France post haste by several friends. So, out of our comfy neighborhood and into the tourist area we went.
Upon debarking the Batobus (river taxi) at the Eiffel Tower, we were almost immediately accosted most aggressively by two women who said they were fundraising for the mute and deaf. They had clipboards and vests for credibility. Our encounter:
Woman 1: “Madam, do you speak English?”
Me: “Yes.” (Otis was getting the same question at the same moment.)
Woman 1: “I am getting signatures for legislation to help deaf and mute children. Would you sign?" (Again, Otis was getting the same question.) "Please fill in where you are from.”
Me: “Sure!” (I start to add my name to a petition then I see the “donation amount” spot. I stop writing.)
Woman 2: “Look! Your wife said ‘yes.’ You will give us a donation?”
Me: “I did not say ‘yes’ to a donation!
Otis: “She already got a fiver.” (In the course of giving five dollars, he had pulled out his wallet and shown that he had more money. This is also called a “wealth screening.” Both women then turned to Otis and began to berate him about me for not donating. However, they did not know what a steel magnolia was.)
Me to Otis: “Start walking.”
Woman 2: “Sir." (She is literally hanging onto to his arm.) "We have children in need. Your wife said ‘yes.’”
Me: “Like hell I did. Walk.”
Otis: (In “The Fly” voice,) “Help me, please.”
When we escaped this rather intense exchange, we looked at each other and said in unison, “Never leave the neighborhood," and "Let’s eat.”
We found a delightful French café and over the entrée, we both realized, at almost the same time, that we had just witnessed everything we teach! We had been subject to, in one condensed 45-second interval, what we aspire to do over the course of a season of peer-to-peer fundraising.
These women had done almost everything right (except almost certainly keeping the fundraised money and the berating of the wife who was in earshot).
The job at hand for them was to extract cash immediately, purportedly to help deaf and mute children. Now I get it. Shysters really hurt legitimate face-to-face fundraisers. But put that aside for a moment to use their theft to help us hone our craft.
Here’s what they did: They got us to say “yes” repeatedly to small behaviors like signing the petition or telling them where we were from and that we spoke English. When it got to the donation, it was much harder to say “no.” They, in short, persuaded 50 percent of the audience to give their first donation using solid psychological techniques. Because he gave up five dollars, the Beloved was tasked with explaining.
There’s an interesting visual you can use to conceptualize persuasion: a playground slide. The idea comes from Roger Dooley who writes the blog “Neuromarketing.” His tag line: “Where neuroscience and marketing meet.”
This is how he describes the process of persuasion:
1. You give someone a nudge. This might be in the form of a tweet, a blog post, a phone call, an ad or a personal request. (Example: “Do you speak English?” and “Will you tell us where you are from?”)
2. Gravity. The customer’s internal motivations help move him or her down the slide. (Example: We both love nonprofits and serving humanity.)
3. Additional motivation that you provide—the angle of the slide—can serve to enhance the gravity. If a person has low internal motivation, it will take a steeper angle to get him or her down the slide. (Example: “Look, your wife said yes!”)
4. Friction. Seen here as the difficulty (real and perceived) in converting (getting them to do what you want them to do) causes the slide to slow down to varying degrees. (Example: Wife now saying “no” and giving beady-eyed stare to “fundraisers.”)
Gaining donor compliance is not new work. Nonprofits that recognize our job is gaining donor compliance—that is a new idea. This idea is that we must embrace fully if we are to compete with other human hardships, faux fundraisers, radical hate groups and smarmy politicians of all kinds.
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.