Key to the Vault: Getting the Rich to Donate
Last week the New York Times published an article titled, “How to Get the Wealthy to Donate.” The piece began with the statement, “Wealthy people are selfish jerks. So are their children.” The article chronicled research that looked at the differences in charitable giving based on net worth. The conclusion of the research studies was clear, “Across a wide range of ages, wealthy adults tended to share less of what they had with others.”
This is bad news for development professionals who use tools like DonorScape and similar wealth screening software to qualify the best prospects to approach for contributions. You may have heard the old line attributed to Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber. He was once asked, “Why do you rob banks?” He replied, “Because that's where the money is.” Likewise, development professionals use wealth screeners to look for prospects because that’s where the money is. But it turns out that these banks may be protected with some difficult to penetrate security systems.
In order to crack the vault, it is important to know the reason why the wealthy resist sharing their largess with others. Researchers theorize that the presence of money allows people to develop a mind-set that is antithetical to a sense of community. Rich people don’t have to depend on a network of friends and family that they can call on when times get tough. If you are a trust fund baby, things are unlikely to get below a six on a scale of one to ten. The threat of hitting bottom seems pretty remote.
University of Chicago psychologist Nicolas Epley shares another factor why the rich have difficulty engaging in his book “Mindwise.” Epley describes the way that people attribute the behavior of others to either environmental (contextual) factors or to aspects of their nature. Ever heard someone rationalize the behavior of someone who is homeless or panhandling as “he prefers to live that way?” That is attributing intention to be homeless to their character, rather than to their situation.
When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, many were quick to blame the victims who failed to evacuate, including then FEMA director Michael Brown who said, “We’ve got to figure out a way to convince people that whenever warnings go out, it’s for their own good.” This ignored the fact that many who remained in the city didn’t have anywhere to go, money to rent a hotel room or transportation. As Epley says, “They didn’t need convincing, they needed a bus.”
It turns out that people of higher socioeconomic status are less sensitive to the role that dumb bad luck plays in shaping the bad things that happen to people.
Before you cancel your license to your wealth screener, there is some good news about soliciting the wealthy. The combination to the bank vault may be all in the messaging. In a series of studies, it was shown that pitching the charity’s messages in a way that better matched the way the wealthy thought about themselves led to more generous behavior. Alumni from an elite business school gave significantly more when they were asked to “come forward and take individual action” than when they were asked to “support a common goal.” Achievement trumps community.
The takeaway? Trying to make people want do the right thing is a difficult path. The New York Times article concludes, “Rather than trying to make others see the world the way we do, it may be more effective to meet them where they are.”
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.