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.
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.