How Asking for Less Will Get You More

A couple of nights a year I find myself in a smoky, ill-lit bingo parlor not far from my home. I am selling tickets for the games to the 200 or so players in the hall, most of them retirees who are regulars.


I am there to raise money for the local high school athletic program, who sponsors these nights and keeps the profits. At the end of each evening, I undress by the washer and drop my clothes directly in to get out the smell of smoke. I ask myself – how did I get roped into this again? I know that the answer to this question is on the rear bumper of my car, a small, powder blue, three by five inch sticker that identifies me as an athletic booster for the high school.

Most of us can identify with this experience; agreeing to help out with a project or an organization, ending up more involved than we intended, and vowing to say no to future requests. And yet, here I am year after year, running tickets for Hot Times, Holy Enchilada, and the other games of chance. The truth is, I fell prey to a technique that we subscribe to at Turnkey to help our clients raise more money for their various missions.

Research has demonstrated conclusively that if you want people to do a big favor for you, get them to do a small favor first. In his classic book, Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes this as the “foot-in-the-door technique.” In my favorite example of the power of the foot-in-the-door, researchers in California posing as public safety officials asked a group of people to permit them to install a huge, poorly lettered “Drive Carefully” sign in their front yards. They showed them pictures of what the sign looked like installed in front of another home, largely obscuring the view of the house. Only 17 percent of homeowners the researchers approached consented.

Another group was recruited to install the sign, but with a difference. Two weeks prior they were approached and asked to put a three inch “Be a safe driver” window sticker on their car or front door window. Almost all the people asked to display the sticker complied with this initial, small request. When researchers asked people who had displayed the small sticker to allow them to erect a large, ugly sticker in their front yards, a staggering 76 percent consented. One graduate student assisting in the study who went from house to house recalled, not knowing which homeowner had been asked to display the sticker, “ I was stunned at how easy it was to convince some people and how impossible to convince others.”


There are many examples of the successful use of the foot-in-the-door technique with altruistic behaviors involving charities and public service activities. The Canadian Cancer Society reported a 46 percent success rate soliciting funds in the Toronto suburbs when approaching potential donors directly. When potential donors were asked to wear a lapel pin promoting the fundraising drive (100% complied with this request) and then asked for a donation 24 hours later, the number of donors doubled, to over 90 percent.

Political campaigns capitalize on the power of making small requests. In one study, a sample of registered voters were approached the day before an election, and simply asked, “Do you expect that you will vote or not?” All said yes. Compared to similar registered voters, those saying yes were 41 percent more likely to vote.

At times, the small request seems insignificant, but results in huge changes in behavior. Phone bank staff for a blood drive made reminder calls ending with, “We’ll count on seeing you then, okay?” and then waited for a response. Doing this increased the rate people showed up from 62 to 81 percent.

What’s the secret sauce behind the foot-in-the-door technique? To make it work, the initial compliance – putting a sticker on a window, wearing a lapel pin, stating your intention to vote – must be voluntary. When people commit to public behaviors and perceive these (albeit small) acts to be of their own doing, it results in them believing more strongly in what they have done.

Even more weird is the fact that I KNOW when the foot-in-the-door technique is being used on me, and it still works. I still show up every year to Hanover Hawk bingo games even though I hate it. I wander up and down rows of bingo players, shouting “Crazy Eights! I got ‘em!” while steeped in smoke and being yelled at by angry senior citizens because I can’t make change fast enough, cursing that damn decal…

The good news is that the technique works great for nonprofits, if planned and used thoughtfully. Ask for a little first. Get a lot later.