Cultivating Social Relationships With Donors

As fundraisers, we’ve heard the phrase, “Don’t make it transactional,” many times. Truth or fiction? Rarely do we dig down into those phrases and tear them apart. Here, to quote Matt Damon in “The Martian,” we’re “…gonna have to science the s#@% out of this.”

Let’s begin. Is there truth rooted in the phrase? Cue Otis Fulton, Turnkey’s psychologist.

“In a study involving Israeli day cares (Gneezy & Rustichini, 2000), researchers implemented a small fine for parents who were late to pick up their child at the end of the day,” Otis shared.

One would conclude that tardy pickup would diminish with a fine. It didn’t. It increased. Seeing that the fine was making the problem worse, the day care eliminated the fine, so everything would go back to the way it was. Fail.

“When the fine was removed after four months, tardiness continued to increase–to double the original rate,” Otis said.

NPP Day Care Study 103015

“How can this be explained?” Otis continued. “That small fine allowed parents to reframe the social responsibility to pick up their children on time into a market price (in fact, the title of the study was, “A Fine is a Price”). It essentially removed the guilt that parents would feel if they picked up their child late because it became a price that parents could pay for being tardy. And once parents had ceased to think of on-time pick-up as a social responsibility, they didn’t go back. When the fine was lifted, staying a half hour later at the office just seemed like a better deal.”

How does that relate to nonprofit peer-to-peer (P2P) fundraising and the phrase, “Don’t make it transactional”? Imagine you’re invited to participate in cancer walk A. Your mom conquered cancer, and you have much affinity for the cause. You register (at no cost) and begin to receive communications encouraging you to fight cancer by fundraising. As you see yourself as part of fighting cancer, you do so.

Now, imagine you’re invited to walk B. You register at a cost of $35. You internalize your $35 registration fee as a price, just as the day care parents perceived their fees as the price of being late. You receive email communications encouraging you to fundraise, but you’ve already bought your ticket for entry with your registration fee. You feel no pressure to fundraise.

Still not convinced? Let’s go in situ. “For us, the registration fee tied to our event is a significant source of revenue, approximately 40 percent, so this makes us pretty reliant on attendance during a time when the event space is very saturated,” said the extremely experienced Melissa Aucoin, National Director, Race For The Cure, Susan G. Komen. “Our focus is to continue to cultivate these relationships and build a culture that supports [P2P] fundraising, but over the last 30 plus years, we’ve reinforced a behavior that suggests to our participants that paying a modest registration fee is all that’s being asked of them, so the road is very long.”

“Pro Aris et Focis” is a Latin phrase that has been used as the motto for thousands of years by some military regiments and educational institutions. Meaning “For God and country,” it has been used by ancient authors to express a social relationship to all that was most dear and venerable. If you’ve been around many military folk, you know that their bond to their organizations transcends their employment in most cases. The social relationship between the soldier and the organization is the difference between a military and a band of mercenaries. It is the only difference.

We’re focusing on a registration fee in this blog because it is the clearest example of this phenomenon, but monetizing our interactions with participants can cause them to reframe their relationships with our nonprofits quickly, with predictable outcomes. Examples of that vulnerability to cause reframe include:

  • Using items for which the price is immediately known as rewards for donors or fundraisers (gift cards, airline tickets, gala tickets)
  • Using too valuable a gift or reward (iPad with your nonprofit logo is still an iPad and valuable)
  • Making access to the activity contingent on high- and required-fundraising levels
  • Loss of focus on mission during acquisition (“register for 50 percent off if by Tuesday” instead of “register by Tuesday and let us call you ‘hero’.”)

Social relationships are powerful motivators of behavior. Humans have evolved to work with and support the groups of which they are part. If groups are to be successful, it is important to carefully nurture and protect these relationships. And little decisions can have large and unforeseen consequences, like turning your fundraiser into a buyer.

(Gneezy & Rustichini, 2000). A Fine is a Price. The Journal of Legal Studies, 29(1), 1-17.