The P2P Lever: Why We Support Social Groups Over Missions
Recently, my hubster Otis Fulton, Turnkey’s psychological expert, read Tom Ahern’s book, “Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes: How to Make a Persuasive Case for Everything From Your Annual Drive to Your Planned Giving Program to Your Capital Campaign.” As promised, Otis said, the book covers a lot of ground. Ahern focuses on writing a “case for support” directed at various types of donors.
The case for support is intended to answer a donor’s fundamental question—why should I give you my money now? The assumption is that the prospect needs to be persuaded to support the organization, and the case for support is the tool needed to make the sale.
Having a crisp narrative about how your nonprofit makes a positive impact on the world is important. It is central to your brand. But, as Otis read the book, he was struck by what he knew about peer-to-peer (P2P) fundraising: People give to people, not organizations. And in those cases, while a crisp narrative might be helpful, it’s not imperative.
He noted what a heavy psychological lift fundraising direct-to-donor really is. As statistics demonstrate, direct response is tough. He said, “A $10 million capital campaign, which is modest in size for many nonprofits, is a really big rock. You’d better bend your knees when you try to lift it. It would be easier if you had a lever, like a person with a relationship with your donor.”
In our conversation over the book*, we compared direct-to-donor campaigns to P2P. Direct campaigns enjoy a 1 percent to 2 percent response. P2P can enjoy a much higher response, depending on whom you ask, up to 25 percent. The power of the peer relationship makes up the distance between 2 percent and 25 percent.
Peers, or relationships, are levers for those big rocks. Whether the peer is deployed in the context of a capital campaign with an active volunteer board, or in a P2P campaign with many volunteer fundraisers, the lever is the peer.
We often say that in P2P campaigns, donations are “mission independent.” The donor gives money not to support the nonprofit, but rather to support his or her peer/friend/family member who is doing the asking. There are lots of reasons to have that great narrative about the benefits of supporting your nonprofit, and you should. But the psychology of the P2P request is so powerful that the mission itself becomes less important. Sometimes it’s not important at all.
Case in point: For the last few years Otis has been interested in applying P2P techniques to politics. Last year he supported a moderate Republican candidate in a state-level election. As an experiment, Otis reached out to only his Democrat friends for donations. And, he only reached out to friends who did not live in the district in which the candidate was running.
Some of the friends Otis solicited contacted him thinking that his email had been hacked by the candidate—knowing that Otis leans to the left politically. One drove to our house to see if we’d been held hostage and forced to keyboard the outreach. (Not really, but Otis is seriously liberal.)
Otis’ pitch for the candidate was a simple, “He’s a solid guy who will make good decisions.” That was all that Otis’ friends needed to hear. By the end of the campaign, Otis was the top fundraiser for this moderate Republican candidate, all of the money coming from Democrats who did not live in the candidate’s district.
If a cabal of psychologists has set out to design a system to extract maximum compliance, they couldn’t have come up with anything more effective at getting a “yes” than P2P. Humans are hardwired to support their social group, not a particular mission.
There are a lot of rocks out there, but a lot of levers, too.
* If you wonder if Otis and I truly talk about this stuff each and every night, indeed, we do, earning us the title, "Most Boring Couple on Earth."
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.