Evolutionary Psychology: A Fundraiser's Best Friend
Otis and I sit around on Saturday morning in our pajamas and talk. After reading the news and perusing Facebook, we always end up at “evolutionary psychology” in answer to the question, “Why would people do that?”
The answer to “why would people do that?” is rarely that it is good for that person. If people did what was good for them, that would imply they thought through all the implications of their actions. Typically, people are making decisions a lot faster than that kind of thought would allow. Instead, they are making decisions using shortcuts, or “heuristics,” to use a psychology term. Those heuristics sometimes are learned, but more often are inherited traits that have evolved.
A learned heuristic might be seeking out a uniformed police officer if you feel afraid.
An evolved heuristic might be finding someone in a crowd who looks like yourself if you feel afraid.
You know something is a learned heuristic because there were, for example, no uniformed police officers on the African Savanna, where our ancestors lived. But there were people who looked like yourself there, and by ganging together, you and the one who looked like you were more likely to survive.
The word “heuristic” has its root in the word “eureka.” Simply put, a heuristic is a tool that simplifies decision-making. If you are an American driving in the U.K. for the first time, heuristics would help you when you assume that green lights mean go and red lights mean stop. You wouldn’t have to waste your time reading a brochure on U.K. traffic laws to get that right. But the same heuristic could be disastrous if you drive on the right side of the road instead of the left, like we do in the U.S.
While some heuristics are learned and vary from culture to culture, others are nearly universal. They are systematic, meaning that everyone exhibits the behavior. That’s how we know which heuristics have evolved in humans over time. They allow us to do things quickly, and with a minimum amount of mental energy. But like any shortcut, speed sometimes comes at the expense of accuracy.
Evolved heuristics are evolutionary psychology in a nutshell. This is powerful, people. Most times the elements of decision-making impacted by evolved heuristics take the day. Not understanding them keeps us from understanding how to get people to donate, how to mobilize volunteers, how to write copy, how to choose which picture to use and lots more. If we make decisions about our campaigns based on anything other than the science around how people make decisions, we are adrift. If we are in love with our own ideas so much that we ignore how our targets think, we will fail. Hell, we have failed. Giving in the U.S. as a percentage of GDP is stalled where it has been for decades.
We must understand how our supporters are making decisions because our supporters—and our prospective supporters—live in a noisy world. They experience many competing demands.
Because we ask for time and resources from our supporters, we can think of them as consumers. They have limited capital to devote to our causes, and there is a lot of competition for their attention. Competition comes in many forms—other causes, college tuition, family obligation, lack of motivation. The list is endless.
One might think that evolution has little to do with consumer behavior. After all, our ancestors didn’t stop at Starbucks for a morning latte. But they carry into Starbucks the same DNA with which they ran around half-naked in the wild, millions of years ago. An understanding of evolutionary psychology can give us insight into the motivation of our supporters.
Let’s use some examples:
- Use repetition. Why? Because humans sort information with which they are familiar more easily, and easy sorting feels like truth.
- Use stories of one person instead of many people. Why? We can distinguish individual characteristics that help us relate to one person as in-group. You can’t do that with a body of people so easily.
- Ask for little things first. Why? A person seeing him or herself in action infers from their own behavior that the exhibited behavior reflects their belief, even when it doesn’t.
- Build fear. Why? Building fear makes one retreat to one’s own group.
And here is the example closest to home for me. Turnkey works most in the peer-to-peer (P2P) fundraising channel. Evolutionary psychology is of utmost importance here.
P2P fundraising works for the same reason that humans evolved from being saber-toothed tiger prey to being the most effective predator in the history of planet Earth. Humans evolved to be more and more socially sensitive. The ability to understand the subtle nuances of your tribe members made you much more likely to thrive and survive. P2P works because it taps into that same skill, our finely tuned antenna for social influence. So when Girl Scouts come to sell us Do-Si-Dos and Thin Mints, we say yes, because they live down the block from us, they go to the same school as our kids. They are a member of our tribe. This is evolutionary psychology at work.
It is difficult when you write that last line of a blog that ties it all together into one piece. You say that last line in your head, and it sounds like Morgan Freeman saying it—and then your husband delivers to you a lovely little nugget of information that you must share, though it is tangential.
Enjoy, courtesy of the Beloved, my husband, consumer behavior expert Otis Fulton:
In his recent book "Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect," UCLA’s Matthew Lieberman describes how we can determine whether or not a human characteristic is accidental or has evolved. It comes down to how universal the trait is. For example, far less than 10 percent of the world’s population plays baseball, making it more likely that baseball is an accidental ability.
But take something like having friends. More than 95 percent of people report that they have friends. Friendship is nearly universal in humans, and has been documented in only a few other species. It is a complex phenomenon; every friend is first a stranger with whom we share no common genes. Maybe they pose a threat to us; we can’t know when we first meet. And yet there is a process by which these strangers become people we depend on for all kinds of support. Lieberman concludes, “As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, 93 percent (universality) seems like a reasonable benchmark to say something might have been significant enough in its own right to promote evolutionary adaptation.”
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.