The P2P Lever: Why We Support Social Groups Over Missions

Recently, my hubster Otis Fulton, Turnkey’s psychological expert, read Tom Ahern’s book, “Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes: How to Make a Persuasive Case for Everything From Your Annual Drive to Your Planned Giving Program to Your Capital Campaign.” As promised, Otis said, the book covers a lot of ground. Ahern focuses on writing a “case for support” directed at various types of donors.

The case for support is intended to answer a donor’s fundamental question—why should I give you my money now? The assumption is that the prospect needs to be persuaded to support the organization, and the case for support is the tool needed to make the sale.

Having a crisp narrative about how your nonprofit makes a positive impact on the world is important. It is central to your brand. But, as Otis read the book, he was struck by what he knew about peer-to-peer (P2P) fundraising: People give to people, not organizations. And in those cases, while a crisp narrative might be helpful, it’s not imperative.

He noted what a heavy psychological lift fundraising direct-to-donor really is. As statistics demonstrate, direct response is tough. He said, “A $10 million capital campaign, which is modest in size for many nonprofits, is a really big rock. You’d better bend your knees when you try to lift it. It would be easier if you had a lever, like a person with a relationship with your donor.”

In our conversation over the book*, we compared direct-to-donor campaigns to P2P. Direct campaigns enjoy a 1 percent to 2 percent response. P2P can enjoy a much higher response, depending on whom you ask, up to 25 percent. The power of the peer relationship makes up the distance between 2 percent and 25 percent.

Peers, or relationships, are levers for those big rocks. Whether the peer is deployed in the context of a capital campaign with an active volunteer board, or in a P2P campaign with many volunteer fundraisers, the lever is the peer.

We often say that in P2P campaigns, donations are “mission independent.” The donor gives money not to support the nonprofit, but rather to support his or her peer/friend/family member who is doing the asking. There are lots of reasons to have that great narrative about the benefits of supporting your nonprofit, and you should. But the psychology of the P2P request is so powerful that the mission itself becomes less important. Sometimes it’s not important at all.

Case in point: For the last few years Otis has been interested in applying P2P techniques to politics. Last year he supported a moderate Republican candidate in a state-level election. As an experiment, Otis reached out to only his Democrat friends for donations. And, he only reached out to friends who did not live in the district in which the candidate was running.

Some of the friends Otis solicited contacted him thinking that his email had been hacked by the candidate—knowing that Otis leans to the left politically. One drove to our house to see if we’d been held hostage and forced to keyboard the outreach. (Not really, but Otis is seriously liberal.)

Otis’ pitch for the candidate was a simple, “He’s a solid guy who will make good decisions.” That was all that Otis’ friends needed to hear. By the end of the campaign, Otis was the top fundraiser for this moderate Republican candidate, all of the money coming from Democrats who did not live in the candidate’s district.

If a cabal of psychologists has set out to design a system to extract maximum compliance, they couldn’t have come up with anything more effective at getting a “yes” than P2P. Humans are hardwired to support their social group, not a particular mission.

There are a lot of rocks out there, but a lot of levers, too.

* If you wonder if Otis and I truly talk about this stuff each and every night, indeed, we do, earning us the title, “Most Boring Couple on Earth.”