Incentives Are Bad, But Promotional Products Are Not
Some of you may have seen section I of this blog before. If you have, skip right on down to section II. If you haven't, read on!
I was just at the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum, a gathering place for peer-to-peer fundraisers, in Orlando. Several good friends said this to me: “You have baggage.”
Aghast and confused, I asked, “What baggage?” They didn’t even know me in the early '80s. There was no way they could possibly know about—nope, it wasn’t that. “What is it?” I begged to know.
“Katrina,” each said in her own way, “it is product. You have product baggage. I know the story on your baggage, but others don’t. You have to tell that story.”
So here is my baggage.
I have had several 10,000-hour thresholds in my career, all of them related. What’s so special about 10,000 hours? Let me defer to our human behavior specialist, and my hubby, Otis Fulton.
Per Otis, “In his 2008 book 'Outliers,' Malcolm Gladwell wrote that 'Ten-thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.' Gladwell contended that it's 'an extraordinarily consistent answer in an incredible number of fields ... you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good.'”
The message in "Outliers" is that people aren't born geniuses, they get there through effort. Gladwell's examples include:
- Bill Gates, who through an unusual convergence of good fortune, was, as a teen in high school, able to start coding on a state-of-the-art supercomputer.
- The Beatles, who refined their sound playing eight-hour gigs in smoky German clubs for years before they invaded America.
Those opportunities to practice early and often—along with the requisite smarts and talent—allowed them to revolutionize software and modern rock and roll.
I started my company in 1989. My first 10,000 hours happened by 2007 or so. By that time, while likely not having achieved “genius-hood,” I had spent 10,000 hours on promotional products procurement and fulfillment for nonprofits. I had worked with, most notably, the American Cancer Society Relay For Life during its explosive growth, and other smaller clients.
By 2007, I realized that most marketing directors didn’t really consider promotional products in the same way that they considered, for example, print media. They didn’t assign value to them, and didn’t carefully consider their spend on promotional products in the same way as other media were evaluated. It frustrated me.
The worst was, by 2007, I began to realize that I might be doing more harm than good to the nonprofit industry I had come to love. The expenditures I saw on promotional products—without careful use, planning and ROI evaluation—were massive.
Around 2007, I began to work closely with a client who felt the same way. We happened to be working on what, at the time, we called an incentive program, using promotional products as incentives for higher fundraising by peer-to-peer volunteers.
She and I both lamented that we really were running a big thank-you gift program because the participants often didn’t even know there was an incentive to be had. We began to experiment with letting people know that there was an incentive program with what then was a bold new idea—income-triggered email campaigns. That began my next 10,000-hour journey.
From that experiment, Turnkey began to deliver income-triggered messaging even before the functionality was built into fundraising platforms. That idea, that messaging people about an incentive would impact their fundraising behaviors, turned into something else altogether.
Once we began to deliver messaging, we also began to deliver redemption opportunities instead of actual gifts. Now fundraisers had to say they wanted gifts, instead of gifts just showing up.
We had created business intelligence that wasn’t there before. And it was good.
That business intelligence led us down another, unexpected, 17,000-hour path to this: “Incentives are bad for nonprofits.” Before all my promotional products friends and partners freak, let me explain.
I give myself a little leeway for missing the 10,000-hour mark since the whole email messaging thing had to be conquered first, and then database design, and then social science too. I cheated on the social science by marrying a psychologist. It was a shortcut I feel good about, though; I’m getting older, he’s darned cute, and I have but so many 10,000 hours in me.
Otis 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 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 degrees in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and 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 also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” 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.