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.
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.