Transactionalism — The Monster in Your Staff’s Closet
The ultimate expression of transactionalism is assuming that people will not support your mission with their money or time if they are not directly impacted by whatever it is your mission fights.
Transactionalism is the foundation of classical economic theory, that people only act out of rational self-interest. In the last 20 years, that theory has been thoroughly discredited. Yet, this mindset persists, even in nonprofit organizations.
It can do dreadful things to fundraisers.
It is why your team is scared.
Your fundraisers fear people saying “no” to them, and they cannot really understand why people might say “yes.”
Now, they do not say aloud that they are scared. But you can see it in their actions — they prefer to manage the logistical details of your social fundraising endeavor rather than recruit volunteer leadership or team captains.
You explain that even the perfect party will not bring fundraising success. They listen but do not hear you.
They do not hear you because they are succumbing to a common bias — they cannot understand why people would be a volunteer leader, captain a team or fundraise for a mission that does not impact that person.
Some of your staff members just hit “play” on a loop in their heads when you push them to get into the community and fundraise or recruit. That loop sounds like this: “We just don’t have the ability to recruit people — or get donations — the way other nonprofits do. I mean, people working on cancer or world hunger, everybody is into that. My mission represents such a small part of the population. This won’t apply to me.”
Or, their loop might sound like this: “Sure, when people they know are affected, you can recruit them. But my mission serves people on the other side of the world. People here are less sensitized to their needs.”
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy; having these ideas in their heads will make them true. “I can’t recruit and fundraise because …” sentences mean staff members cannot recruit and fundraise because they have already decided they cannot. We know a young man with eight fingers who is a concert pianist. We see a guy who plays the guitar with his feet and has a national following because of his music, not his feet.
Anyone in a nonprofit who says aloud “I can’t recruit and fundraise because …” should reconsider their career choice, or you might reconsider it for them. We know those are strong words, but these people are taking a seat from someone who believes they can fundraise. And your naysayer is very unhappy, afraid and spreading that unlove around your office or on Zoom calls. Act.
But if you want to try and change their mindset, here we go.
First, why are they wrong about not being able to recruit or fundraise? We have spent 32 years talking about why people fundraise and why people donate. Almost none of those reasons had to do with a specific mission, but how people saw themselves, their ability, and their desire to make a positive change.
Little Mr./Miss/They Negative thinks it is all about the nonprofit. They are wrong. It is all about the volunteer/fundraiser/donor. While a particular mission might swing open the door to a conversation a bit more, the main reason that door is open at all is that people you are talking to want to accomplish something important to them. Usually that involves showing the world they are a good person. Your organization is their vehicle, their route.
We talk a lot about transactionalism. In this business, it does not have much of a place; it undermines relationships and erodes mission attachment. Some staffers think that no one will help unless the mission affects them directly. It must be about that thing, that illness, that condition, whatever it is that touched someone they love or themselves.
That level of transactionalism is insulting to our constituents. These people care. That is the whole sentence; we do not need to tack on a prepositional phrase starting with “about” at the end. These people care because “caring” is what they are. Their engagement with nonprofits gives them the ability to be what they want to be.
For example, people may not connect with a rare disease that causes spontaneous bone tumors throughout the body, but they connect with people in pain. They connect with parents wanting a better life for their kids. It is hard watching other people suffer. It is natural for us to care.
If your staffer persists in standing in the way of your constituents exhibiting “care,” holy hell — get them out of the way.
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a book, "Dollar Dash," on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
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 thirty 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.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.