For Your Eyes Only: The Event T-shirt
The eyes that matter most on your event T-shirt are the eyes of the person wearing it.
Courtesy of Turnkey’s psychologist, Otis Fulton: “William James, who is regarded by many to be America’s greatest psychologist, once said, ‘I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing.’ The idea that people infer their attitudes from observing their own behavior seems counterintuitive, but there is a rich body of research around ‘self perception theory’ (Bem, 1972) that demonstrates how powerful this tendency actually is.”
If I can get people to do something, like throw ice water on their heads, they will develop an attitude like, “I support ALS,” even though they did the Ice Bucket Challenge for entirely different reasons, like, “This is fun.” The value of the T-shirt is that the person wearing it sees him or herself in it frequently over the next year, reinforcing the intrinsic or self-label of “I support X. I am a person who participates in this event every year.”
When we reinforce the intrinsic label of a person by helping him or her overtly self-identify as someone who performs certain behaviors–in this case being a fundraiser for our nonprofit–we increase the likelihood we will get he or she back next year to do that same behavior.
And if we can get our participant to wear the event T-shirt regularly, every time he or she puts it on, it reinforces the idea, “I support X.”
How important is this conversation? Jaymey Butler, CMP, formerly of the American Cancer Society Relay For Life, and now with St. Baldrick’s, has deep experience with the logistics of T-shirts. Her thought was that the most efficient programs buy T-shirts for around 1.5 percent of the income an event produces. Let’s use 2 percent to be fair, since most T-shirts are not bought at Relay For Life or St. Baldrick’s scale. If the top 30 P2P events raise $1.7 billion, and if 2 percent of the money from each event goes to buy T-shirts, that is $34 million in T-shirts just in the top 30 events. If people wore the T-shirts, it would be worth the money—but they don’t.
The event T-shirt is a great buy at $2 to $3 each. But, by and large, it is a low-quality item in comparison to a wardrobe item. It almost always has a design that is printed very largely on the front or back. Low-quality and in-your-face design, no matter how clever, keeps that shirt relegated to the car-washing drawer, if not to the rag pile. Few wear it beyond event day, killing its primary value.
What else is wrong with our use of the event T-shirt? Often, we give it away just for showing up. So first, a whole bunch of people who didn’t raise a dime get the shirt, which is expensive. And second, rewarding someone for a behavior that is engagement contingent (show up = get shirt) versus performance contingent (successfully raise a certain amount = get shirt) actually diminishes his or her intrinsic label, which means he or she will be less compliant with your future requests to fundraise.
Many nonprofits now are addressing this issue by requiring that participants raise a low level of income in order to get the T-shirts. This is a great move on several fronts: it establishes a baseline behavior that can be leveraged to induce greater forms of the same behavior (higher fundraising), makes the T-shirt a highly effective performance-contingent reward and, by definition, allows the T-shirt to be paid for itself.
But, the other problem remains—people generally don’t wear the T-shirt beyond event day. Here’s how I know: One in 10 Americans own an American Cancer Society Relay For Life shirt. That event has three million participants a year. If Relay For Life had an average of 1.5 million participants a year for 20 years (to roughly account for multi-year participants and growth over time), that would be 30 million people with Relay For Life T-shirts. One in 10 Americans own a Relay For Life shirt. My trips to the grocery do not demonstrate that one in 10 people have a Relay For Life shirt. There are a whole lot of clean cars, though.
So what’s a better way? Give participants something they will literally see their own bodies wearing or start over by asking, “what exactly is it we are trying to achieve here, anyway?”
Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-Perception Theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 6, 1-62.
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.