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.”
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a new book, Dollar Dash, on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.