Loss Aversion: The Hidden Killer of Progress
Last week I wrote about the idea that in order to maximize commitment and performance on the part of volunteers, it is necessary to give up some control over their activities. I ended with, “Terrifying, isn’t it?” Social science tells us with great certainty that the more a person thinks they are being controlled, the worse they perform. This is known as “the hidden cost of control.” But, as a manager of any sort, we want the reins. The idea of giving up control creates a lot of discomfort for nonprofit executives who are accountable to their boards of directors for results.
Ceding control is a new strategy for most, and even though we have solid evidence that doing so will increase performance of volunteers, most managers don’t cede control to volunteers. Why is that? There are a few reasons:
- No one’s job was ever saved by, “The volunteers didn’t do what they said they would.”
- It is counter intuitive that ceding control will improve volunteer performance.
- Another freaky human bias? Yes!
Ceding control is a change and requires a decision. Why should this—or any—change be such a gut-roiling exercise when all the research, both quantitative and empirical, says, "do it"? Most often, people stay the course in the face of diminishing results. Each of us has sat back in our chair, exasperated and confused about a leader or subordinate’s unwillingness to change in the face of overwhelming evidence. In fact, my friend Amy Braiterman of Blackbaud, recently confided in me her frustration because sometimes clients go against all reason and make clearly self-destructive decisions. “Katrina, what is happening in their heads as they point a gun at their own foot? I just don’t get it,” she said.
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.