For Your Eyes Only: The Event T-shirt

The eyes that matter most on your event T-shirt are the eyes of the person wearing it. Courtesy of Turnkey’s psychologist, Otis Fulton: “William James, who is regarded by many to be America’s greatest psychologist, once said, ‘I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing.’ The idea that people infer their attitudes from observing their own behavior seems counterintuitive, but there is a rich body of research around ‘self perception theory’ (Bem, 1972) that demonstrates how powerful this tendency actually is.”

If I can get people to do something, like throw ice water on their heads, they will develop an attitude like, “I support ALS,” even though they did the Ice Bucket Challenge for entirely different reasons, like, “This is fun.” The value of the T-shirt is that the person wearing it sees him or herself in it frequently over the next year, reinforcing the intrinsic or self-label of “I support X. I am a person who participates in this event every year.”

When we reinforce the intrinsic label of a person by helping him or her overtly self-identify as someone who performs certain behaviors - this case being a fundraiser for our nonprofit - increase the likelihood we will get he or she back next year to do that same behavior.

And if we can get our participant to wear the event T-shirt regularly, every time he or she puts it on, it reinforces the idea, “I support X.”

How important is this conversation? Jaymey Butler, CMP, formerly of the American Cancer Society Relay For Life, and now with St. Baldrick’s, has deep experience with the logistics of T-shirts. Her thought was that the most efficient programs buy T-shirts for around 1.5 percent of the income an event produces. Let’s use 2 percent to be fair, since most T-shirts are not bought at Relay For Life or St. Baldrick’s scale. If the top 30 P2P events raise $1.7 billion, and if 2 percent of the money from each event goes to buy T-shirts, that is $34 million in T-shirts just in the top 30 events. If people wore the T-shirts, it would be worth the money—but they don’t.

The event T-shirt is a great buy at $2 to $3 each. But, by and large, it is a low-quality item in comparison to a wardrobe item. It almost always has a design that is printed very largely on the front or back. Low-quality and in-your-face design, no matter how clever, keeps that shirt relegated to the car-washing drawer, if not to the rag pile. Few wear it beyond event day, killing its primary value.

What else is wrong with our use of the event T-shirt? Often, we give it away just for showing up. So first, a whole bunch of people who didn’t raise a dime get the shirt, which is expensive. And second, rewarding someone for a behavior that is engagement contingent (show up = get shirt) versus performance contingent (successfully raise a certain amount = get shirt) actually diminishes his or her intrinsic label, which means he or she will be less compliant with your future requests to fundraise.

Many nonprofits now are addressing this issue by requiring that participants raise a low level of income in order to get the T-shirts. This is a great move on several fronts: it establishes a baseline behavior that can be leveraged to induce greater forms of the same behavior (higher fundraising), makes the T-shirt a highly effective performance-contingent reward and, by definition, allows the T-shirt to be paid for itself.

But, the other problem remains—people generally don’t wear the T-shirt beyond event day. Here’s how I know: One in 10 Americans own an American Cancer Society Relay For Life shirt. That event has three million participants a year. If Relay For Life had an average of 1.5 million participants a year for 20 years (to roughly account for multi-year participants and growth over time), that would be 30 million people with Relay For Life T-shirts. One in 10 Americans own a Relay For Life shirt. My trips to the grocery do not demonstrate that one in 10 people have a Relay For Life shirt. There are a whole lot of clean cars, though.

So what’s a better way? Give participants something they will literally see their own bodies wearing or start over by asking, “what exactly is it we are trying to achieve here, anyway?”

Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-Perception Theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 6, 1-62.