Quit Calling It a 'Walk'
Our Groundhog Day conversation starts this way: “What activity should we pivot to right now?”
We are going to make several arguments, most of which you will probably hate.
- Kill the walk?
- Keep the walk?
- Quit calling it a “walk”?
It is a circuitous route, so stick with us.
Right now, you want to know, “Now that the pandemic is here — perhaps to stay — what will replace the event my organization was using to raise money? How do I navigate the pandemic and safety requirements to produce the same or hopefully better results for my organization?”
These are the wrong questions. Very wrong. Most terribly wrong.
Human Operating System
Social science has taught us a lot about human behavior. We understand that you are compelled by your DNA to see almost everything about how things relate to you. You are, like us all, possessed of an egocentric view that is practically impossible to let go of. It is what psychologists refer to as the “egocentric bias.” Our overwhelming focus on ourselves is a survival technique, amplified by eons of doing just that — surviving. So, evolved traits are typically handy things, but they can produce blind spots.
When we talk about the new thing our organization is moving to, we tend to think of it from our egocentric viewpoint. Ideally, this conversation should be about the constituent, not ourselves, not our organization. But that is hard for us.
What If You Quit Thinking Egocentrically?
What research has shown to be more useful — and that raises more money — is to think from your constituent’s perspective. Let us use some self-reflection to figure this out. Back to your own egocentric desires. What do you want most? (We are talking in broad strokes now. Do not overthink this.) What you want is to be happy. Happiness. Everyone is motivated by the desire to become happier. Your constituents are the same. If we are to be successful, we must help them be happier. The pandemic has forced us to change our standard operating procedures, to make a pivot in how we do things. How will we use our pivot to make our constituents happier? If we do it right, that pivot will make us happier, too, because our missions will move forward.
What Is the Happiness-Making New Activity?
Brace yourself for this. We recently heard a client articulate deep wisdom very succinctly. We will call him The Prophet. The Prophet defined event-based happiness, saying, “Our events are about love, community, acceptance and understanding.” He did not say, “Our events are about providing the best 5K on either coast,” or, “We put on the best endurance events in the country.” He did not talk about the activity although there is one.
Happiness, according to social science, is built on three things: feelings of competence, (I am good at doing something important), autonomy, (I am doing this because I want to do it), and connectedness (I am a part of something bigger than myself). Providing these things makes people happy. Happy people stick around.
Our potential high lifetime value constituent is someone in pain. Sometimes they feel literal pain. Sometimes they feel the pain of watching a loved one suffer. Sometimes they feel the pain of wanting to make something change. If we talk to them primarily about an activity, are we giving them the conversation they want? Or are we giving them the conversation we want?
Fundraising professionals talk about the activity because it is easier to plan and execute an activity than to plan and execute making someone happier. The activity can get more people to show up — people who often have zero ties to the mission and who do not feel your real constituent’s pain. These people are unlikely to be important over time to fix something important in the world. These people rarely transition to having high lifetime value. Sure, you can always find that one person this does not fit, but that is an anecdote, not a trend.
OK, this is where we will likely lose you. There is a reason the walk has raised more money than any other activity in social fundraising to date.
The walk is really the absence of an activity. Many of us walk during the walk. Most people do not consider walking to be an activity in and of itself. The real activity is supplying people with all those things our client articulated: “love, community, acceptance and understanding.”
Must We Call It a 'Walk'?
What makes it so hard for most of us to think like The Prophet? Why do we persist in sticking with a walk? First, as we said, staffers feel compelled to offer an activity beyond “let me make you happy.”
Second, we continue to use the word “walk” because, like McDonald’s golden arches, it sets expectations. It is a communications shortcut; you know what you are getting. The question is — a shortcut for whom? Are we using “walk” as an inside-baseball language shortcut, like we do “DIY fundraising”? Is “walk” a communications shortcut for industry insiders or for those whom we are trying to acquire? We know what to expect, but really — do our constituents?
Third, could it be that using the word “walk” makes acquisition harder? Does, “walk,” like “marathon” or “polar plunge,” put off some people who do not want to do that activity, not knowing that the walking part is not what is most important? If we imply “walk” is the actual activity instead of “be happier,” do we lose more than just my husband Otis, who is an immediately not interested? For Otis, that activity implies “boring," "takes a long time," "hurts my basketball-injured knees," and "is sweat-producing.” He is not alone in that. What if we called it “Play,” or “Love,” or “Be Together” or “Celebrate”? They are all verbs, like “walk.” Could these names eliminate the barrier to people who do not want to walk?
Thus ends the rant — almost. In this blog, we are ignoring a big part of why the "deadly boring walk" still works — the satisfaction felt by leadership volunteers who have important roles in putting the walk on. Their activity is not the walk, it is the leadership of the walk.
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.