How Humble Is Your Nonprofit?
People will gravitate to humble organizations for the same reasons they gravitate to humble people. Why is that?
Let me tell you about a humble person I know. When writing copy for nonprofit clients, I recommend that the messages come from a single individual, rather than the organization. This makes it more personal for the reader and allows me to write in the subject’s voice. Whenever I can, I interview whomever I’m writing for in order to get a sense of their personality.
Recently, I was writing an end-of-year message from the CEO of an organization that serves children’s health worldwide. The CEO is (literally) a picture of warmth. I love to feature his photos in messaging to supporters along with the kids of all complexions the organization helps.
At the end of his message, I wrote, “Your kindness and compassion humble me. It energizes me to wake up every day and fight to (fulfill the organization’s mission).”
The CEO had never mentioned humility to me in an interview. Instead, it was something I took away from seeing all those smiling pictures of him with grateful kids and their parents. Gratitude gets a lot of play in nonprofit copy; humility does not — but it should.
Reading the book, "Humble: Free Yourself from the Traps of a Narcissistic World," by social psychologist Daryl Van Tongeren, I became convinced that nonprofits should adopt a posture of humility when communicating with supporters. I was also convinced that I could cultivate humility to make my personal life happier.
Research shows that the United States is in the grip of a narcissism epidemic, leaving many feeling disconnected and anxious. Humility can transform their sense of ennui.
In the last decade, psychologists have focused increasing attention on the powerful role of humility in private and public life. The data are compelling: Humility changes lives. It is a boon for healthy relationships, a necessary component of the workplace, and an important part of any society that seeks to grow and change.
Charities (rightfully) spend lots of time thinking about their brand, how supporters and the public perceive them. Here’s why I believe humility should be a part of every nonprofit’s brand.
A critical component of humility is being oriented toward others, thinking about others, and considering their needs.
“It’s a transcendent move that shifts people into a wider perspective, broadening what they consider when making decisions and reorienting their world so that they are no longer in the center,” Van Tongeren said. “This profound shift may be the hallmark social feature of humility.”
Psychologists have documented something they call the “better-than-average effect.” In short, people tend to rate themselves as better than the average person on things like intelligence, attractiveness, athletic ability, etc. The average self-rating for people is usually somewhere between 65% and 70%. But wait — how can everybody be above average?
Organizations are a lot like individuals in this regard. Many of the more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States have super-important missions. But focusing on how great your organization is rather than on your relationship with your supporters (“because of you, all these great things will happen”) won’t keep them around for the long haul.
Think about your organization’s supporters. Do you describe them as your donors, or do you think of yourself as one of the charities they support? The answer is telling — are you at the center of their world, or are they at the center of yours?
I often write about the kinds of relationships nonprofits have with their donors. We talk about our supporters being part of the organization’s “family.” And rightfully so, communicating with and treating them as if they’re a family member is the best way to ensure we retain their support.
As Van Tongeren explained, “[Humble people] are willing to consider us and our needs. And who wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone like that?” No one.
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.