The beloved (Otis the psychologist) was writing at the kitchen table. He was writing about fundraising, I was pretty sure. I walked past, surreptitiously reading over his shoulder. Back and forth, putting one glass at a time into the cabinets, craning.
Finally, he increased the resolution to 200 percent and said, “You can just ask.”
“But then I’ll have to credit you,” I said.
“You have to credit me anyway or I won’t give you the references.”
What inspired our sparring was watching a video about movements. From that video erupted our jinx phrase, “movements create movement.”
Movements are groups of people, like peer-to-peer fundraisers participating in an event, doing particular things because they believe particular things. Individuals form a belief by seeing themselves—literally as in, “I see my body doing this”—performing actions that support an idea, and taking on that mental idea. It doesn’t matter why a person’s body is engaged in the behavior (“mom made me do it,” or “it is fun,” or “everyone is doing it,” as examples), the mind will typically take on the belief demonstrated by the behavior. The movement in your mind can be created by the movement in which you are participating, even though you aren’t participating because you believe in the movement.
If you are a peer-to-peer fundraiser, you are doing your best to create a movement, which is why this matters at all. To help demonstrate, let’s move to the dry, but referenced, neuropsycho-speak section of this piece.
Says Otis, the well-known story of The Star Thrower by Lauren Eisley has been adapted and retold by motivational speakers and on Internet sites since the mid-1980s. The story goes like this:
An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer.
As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
“Young lady,” he asked, “why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”
“But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, “It made a difference for that one.”
The old man looked at the young woman inquisitively and thought about what she had done. Inspired, he joined her in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
Otis continues, the story is told to groups for its message of how one person can make a difference. What is usually overlooked in the story is the mechanism of change. The young girl, the star thrower, had started a social movement. She had inspired a group of people to come together to bring about a change to a specific political or social issue.
In my version of the story, the guy is hitting on the young woman, gets some face time by throwing starfish, and then transitions to believing in star-fish throwing unbeknownst to even himself, because his body keeps doing it. In my far-more-plausible interpretation of the story, he never does get a date, but saves a lot of starfish. Other people start throwing starfish for similarly crazy reasons, but gain a belief in what they are doing. The end.
Whichever way you interpret it, this story means that, as a fundraiser, the purpose of my activity is to get people to exhibit a behavior, after which I can help them transition to believers and fundraisers themselves.
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 30 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. They live in Richmond, Virginia.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at bbcon, NonProfit POWER, P2P Forum and others. They write a monthly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." Click here to download the first chapter.