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.
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.