What Anti-Maskers Can Teach Nonprofits
To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
For the last two years, I’ve been studying the impact of identity on prosocial behavior; it’s the topic of my doctoral dissertation. This idea informs the fundraising copy that I write for our clients at Turnkey.
Last week, I saw an interesting example of how identity influences attitudes in the behavioral petri dish called Facebook. Katrina had responded to a question that was posted: “Will you continue to wear a mask outdoors in public, even if you are not required to?”
This was her response:
Four days later (at the time of this writing), her seemingly innocuous post reply had elicited a whopping 196 replies and 483 responses, including 134 “ha-has.”
Eyeballing the replies, the negative comments outnumbered the positive, supportive ones by about three to one. Here are a handful of examples:
There’s a lesson to be learned here regarding how nonprofits go about raising money for their missions. If the “mission” Katrina described is “consideration of others,” what made so many respond this negatively? Why would they aggressively oppose a simple courtesy?
People came out of the woodwork to respond because of their identity. Specifically, Katrina’s comment triggered their identity as “anti-maskers.” Anti-masking is part of a larger political identity that increasingly defines a significant portion of our country. A 2020 NBC poll regarding mask-wearing in public revealed a more than 30-point split between Republicans and Democrats. A recent Kaiser poll found a similar gap. Anti-masking mirrors “vaccine hesitancy,” which is something that should concern us all.
As we’ve written in a previous blog, political identities spill over into many aspects of our society, and charitable giving is no exception. You can read our how-to guide to approaching liberals and conservatives in the earlier blog. We’re focusing here on the power of identity to influence behavior.
Everyone has many facets to their identity: I’m a husband, father, animal-rights supporter, liberal, University of Virginia Alumni, etc. Some aspects of one’s identity are more important than others at any given time, more “salient,” as psychologists say.
Our identities form the basis for how we divide up others into “in-groups” and “out-groups.” It’s pretty simple — you’re a member of my group or you’re not. Groups can be big and general, like men/women, young/old, White/Black. The characterization of small in-groups is limited only by the identities we carry, like “aging White former ACC basketball players,” a pretty small crowd I’m a member of.
After a few days, we decided we’d write about her post. So we turned it into a little social psychology study. At this point, Katrina responded to one of her “flamers,” emphasizing the consideration of others angle again:
The response? People simply doubled down on their earlier comments:
One pervasive finding in psychology is that people favor those who are part of their in-group(s) and discriminate against those in their out-group(s). That’s why trying to engage someone with reasonable arguments counter to an attitude built on their identity is usually a big loser, as evidenced by this person:
The posts of the anti-maskers reflect an “us versus them” mentality. Many expressed that their personal freedoms were being challenged. We thought that changing the perspective of the anti-maskers with regards to their in-group might cause them to reconsider their position. For example, if they saw the far-ranging consequences of their “personal” decisions.
We decided a better approach than shaming and hectoring would be to broaden their perceived in-group: “I know you’re young, and COVID-19 probably won’t kill you or even make you very sick, but I just worry about my grandma.” Everybody has (or had) a grandma. “Have Grandma” = in-group.
So, Katrina started “in-grouping” (I’m using the term as a verb here) people on Facebook. Here’s how one conversation started:Katrina responded, using “like you” in her post, and saying “I agree with you”:
She used this approach on many who posted angry or insulting comments. She got zero responses from this commenter or any commenter when she responded in this way. Why? It’s hard to treat someone in your in-group badly. While they didn’t come around to her way of thinking, they moved. And that’s what we are after: movement.
So, what’s the takeaway — beyond COVID-19? How do we use this to raise more money? Remember, no one really cared about Katrina’s “mission” of being considerate. They cared about whether she was part of their in-group.
We can use what we know about identity to move people in two ways. First, “prime” people about the parts of their identity that are congruent with your cause. “Priming” is psychologists’ lingo for “reminding and activating.” Prime early and often. It’s particularly important right before you make an ask: “As a health care professional, you know how important children’s…” Or more generally: “As a caring, compassionate member of the [XYZ Foundation] community, you understand…”
Second, expand in-groups to include more supporters and prospects. Raising funds for Sub-Saharan African hunger relief? Forget about just looking for people who care about Sub-Saharan African hunger. Instead, you might try, “As a mother, you understand the pain of not being able to provide for your children.” “Mothers” is a big in-group. When you start to think this way, the possibilities to include people become nearly endless.
That Facebook thread is still up and pulling in comments. Katrina’s next post is going to be the link to this blog. We hope everyone will be cool learning they were subjects in our little experiment.
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.