Extreme Events Equals Extreme Affinity (But Think Before You Leap)
Some years ago, I (Otis) was having dinner with a client and her husband, Bill. In the course of the meal, it came up that Bill was going to be doing a DIY event (although it wasn’t called that then) to raise money for breast cancer research, and they asked if I would consider sponsoring Bill for $100 for his event. Bill’s mother had passed away from the disease a few years prior.
Without hesitation, I told Bill to count me in and asked what he would be doing. I knew that Bill was a bit of a thrill seeker; he owned a couple of stock cars that he raced at amateur Nascar events. However, I was still taken aback when he said, “Next month, I’m going to go to Russia and skydive out of the back of a old Russian Air Force cargo plane.” This was in February. And he was going to be jumping out of the plane, along with 107 other guys, over Siberia.
In February, upon his return to the U.S., I got an email from Bill thanking me for sponsoring him. He had raised more than $4,000. Oh, and one guy died during the jump when his chute failed to open, and Bill’s chute hadn’t deployed quite all the way—he broke his ankle when he hit the ground. Because his descent was a bit faster than those in the main group, it took the ground crew a while to locate him. Waiting for them, he nearly froze to death. The good news: The cast would be off his leg by the beginning of race season!
Bill decided to raise money for breast cancer around his jump as an afterthought. He had never been involved in nonprofit fundraising of any kind before this, but… what the heck! He was going to jump over Siberia, so he might as well raise a few dollars in the process.
However, when Bill came back from that trip, he brought with him a newfound passion for supporting breast cancer research. An early DIYer, he still participates in various fundraising events for breast cancer each year. What was it that triggered Bill’s affinity for this cause?
Part of the reason Bill’s attitude about breast cancer changed is due to what psychologists call “effort justification.” It works like this: When the effort spent in pursuing a goal is higher than its rewards, we often attribute greater importance to the goal. Connecting breast cancer research to the jump over Siberia made the cause seem much more important to Bill.
In a classic experiment in 1959, U.S. Army psychologists demonstrated that people who had to go through a highly embarrassing situation to join a discussion group reported liking the group more. In a later study, the experimenters added electric shocks. Subjects who received severe shocks before entering the group reported valuing membership in the group more than those who received relatively mild shocks.
What’s our takeaway? We simply have to understand what is happening in our participants when we subject them to particular treatments. The jump-from-airplane-in-Siberia treatment created an affinity to a breast cancer organization. It costs a lot to put on the event. We likely created high lifetime value in someone with wealth. This is a business model. The metrics are quite different from a walk business model. A walk costs little to run and leans on those with existing affinity.
The art is to fully define the model in which you are working. The art is to fully understand how humans are making decisions they are making. With that understanding, you can define what it will cost to acquire, to motivate and to fundraise and what the lifetime value of a participant could be.
Bottom line: Do the mental work before buying porta potties, planning routes or renting Russian bombers to drop old guys from the sky.
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.