Leveraging Our Biases to Fundraise
We are big TED Talk fans. Recently we came across a talk given by Yassmin Abdel-Magied about bias. It begins with the story of an experiment done in 1952 by the Boston Symphony. At the time, management was looking to diversify its male-dominated ranks, so it conducted a series of “blind” auditions. They had musicians play behind a screen to remove gender bias and ensure that the selection was based purely on merit. They hoped this would result in a greater number of women in the orchestra.
Unexpectedly, the blind auditions still skewed towards selecting men. Management then made a small additional request before each audition began. They asked the musicians to remove their shoes. It turned out that the sound of women’s heels as they walked to their place behind the screen unconsciously influenced the judges. After removing their shoes, nearly 50 percent of the women passed their auditions, qualifying them for further consideration.
The takeaway? Overcoming biases is a difficult task, because they operate unconsciously. The judges listening to the musicians were unaware that they were recognizing men and women based on the sounds of their shoes. Nevertheless, this profoundly influenced their judgments.
As one might guess from her name, Yassmin Abdel-Magied is Muslim. She wears a headscarf, a hajib. The title of her TED Talk is “What Does My Headscarf Mean to You?”
The subject of her talk is her struggle to deal with the unconscious bias of those who see her in the scarf, and the judgments that they make as a result. Much like the shoes unconsciously biasing the judges at the Boston Symphony, we are completely unaware of these processes at work—that’s how unconscious biases operate, totally out of our awareness.
You can think of the human brain as a prediction machine. Most of our distant ancestors lived in an area of no more than 25 miles in diameter during their entire lifetimes. They mostly encountered people who looked pretty much like themselves.
Over the course of evolution, one of the things that became valuable to people is the ability to determine who was most likely to help them in times of need. Think about it: Who are you most likely to call when you are in a jam? Family. Over the eons, we evolved to infer that others who are similar to us in appearance or personality may also be similar to us genetically—people who look or act like us may be kinfolk. So, helpful to our survival was this ability to predict which people are likely to be part of our group; it became unconscious, automatic. That’s the way unconscious biases are born, and we have carried them part and parcel from the African Savannah to our modern day cities and suburbs.
Even when we try to treat everyone as equal, social cues, like a hajib, influence us. As Yassmin says, “Unconscious bias is ingrained in all of us,” even when we try to treat everyone as equals. She explains in her TED Talk:
“Unconscious bias is not the same as conscious discrimination. I’m not saying that in all of you, there’s a secret racist or ageist lurking within, waiting to get out. We all have our biases. They’re filters through which we see the world around us. Bias can be about race; it can be about gender. It can also be about class, education, disability. The fact is, we all have biases against what’s different—what’s different to our social norms.”
How can unconscious bias impact nonprofits’ ability to fundraise? One thing we know precisely—because we are so sensitive to social cues—peer-to-peer campaigns are very effective. Research conducted at the Wharton School for Business demonstrated that giving is greater when the donor related in some way to somebody affected by misfortune, specifically those who are in a “communal relationship” versus an “exchange or transactional relationship.” Translated, this means that people are generous to those who they perceive to be part of their community.
Examples of nonprofits leveraging personal relationships include successful events like Race for the Cure and Swim Across America. Fundraising efforts are initiated by individuals in need of assistance and donations come from their immediate friends or family.
The key is to leverage constituents’ personal relationships with individuals close to them who have experienced misfortune (e.g. a health crisis) and motivate them to expand their sympathy to your broader community.
Finally, in general, the more we are exposed to a person, organization, idea or cause, the more we like it. Psychologists call this the “simple exposure effect.” In a recent blog, we wrote about the Ben Franklin Effect—if we are asked to perform a small favor for an organization (e.g. to like its Facebook page)—we will feel more positively toward that organization. Nonprofits can take advantage of these biases by communicating frequently to their constituents with fresh content and engaging them to perform small, easy favors on their behalf.
Unconscious bias affects our ability to raise funds for our missions. But their effect doesn’t always have to be negative. Understanding bias allows us to navigate around it, sometimes mitigating its effect, so that it doesn’t impact our bottom lines.
Want to understand more about your own biases? Psychologists at Harvard University, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington have created a fascinating series of online tests to measure unconscious bias for a number of social attitudes, including age, gender, race, religion, skin tone and weapons. Their work is called Project Implicit. If you’re anything like me, your results will surprise you. We are all more biased than we believe.
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.