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Thursday, 7 October 2010

Why are we afraid of success?

By Damian O'Broin

It was interesting to read Christiana’s article here two weeks ago on failure and how talking about it builds trust with supporters. I’ve been thinking a lot about success recently and how many of us seem afraid to talk about how successful we are.

I’ll give you an example. On two different occasions recently, I’ve found myself debating with clients on whether or not to tell donors how successful previous fundraising appeals have been. As it happens, both appeals were for specific parts of their work and both had exceeded the stated target – by quite a margin.

I wanted to shout this from the rooftops and tell donors exactly how much had been raised. This was great news, wasn’t it? But our clients were more reluctant. Basically, their concern was that if we told donors how much was raised we would de-motivate them to give in the future. That it would decrease the need in their eyes.

I think this is wrong for several reasons.

First of all, it misunderstands the nature of influence. One of the six principles of influence identified by Robert Cialdini is the notion of social proof – when we are unsure of what to do, we look around to see what others are doing and take our lead from them.

This is why sit-coms use canned laughter – it tells us when we should laugh. And it’s what lies behind the phenomenon of ‘pluralistic ignorance’, when a group of bystanders can watch a life-threatening event – a mugging, a heart attack – and fail to act. Each is looking to the others for a cue as to how to behave and, as they’re not sure how to react, they don’t act.

Social proof is a very powerful lever of influence and clearly it’s in our interests as fundraisers to have it working for us rather than against us. If we constantly talk about need, without sharing our successes, we are implicitly suggesting to a donor that other people don’t support us.

Whereas, when we demonstrate, in clear and specific ways, that lots of other people are also donating to our cause then we tip the scales of social proof in our direction.

In essence, by telling our donors just how successful we’ve been at raising money, we are providing them with social proof that their decision to support us is correct.

It’s also well known that people like being associated with success. Post election opinion polls are a good example of this. After elections, polls tend to show that the winning party or candidate performed better than they actually did, as respondents associate themselves with success.

And there are other reasons why it’s good to tell donors exactly how much you’ve raised.

It shows that you’re good at what you do. It demonstrates that your fundraising is effective, efficient and well run. Exceeding your target gives you a better fundraising ratio.

It provides clear, tangible evidence that what you’re asking for in your appeals is both realistic and achievable. If your donors know that, between them, they’ve managed to give €100,000, when you go back to them with a target of €125,000 they’ll know that it’s within reach.

The converse of this is important to bear in mind. If you set a target that your donors don’t believe is achievable, they are much less likely to make a gift.

Let me give you an example. Bullying UK – an organisation that I admire – faced a funding crisis over the summer. They needed to raise £50,000 by the end of August to avoid closing down. When I heard, I immediately went to make a donation. But I hesitated. As I thought about it, I realised that I wasn’t convinced that they would be able to raise the money and, therefore, my small gift would be wasted. I never made the donation. (As it happens, the appeal fell short, but Bullying UK struggles on.)

Another important reason to share the detail of your success in this way is simply because it’s true. Telling donors about it is genuine feedback.

We’re gradually entering an era where complete openness and transparency is becoming the norm that is expected of nonprofits by their donors. I believe that the only way to respond to this is with radical honesty. Not just giving donors answers to the questions they ask, but by making available information on everything that they might ask about (with the usual caveats about the privacy of those a nonprofit helps or supports).

Radical openness of this sort will inevitably build trust between donors and charities and help to dispel the myths about inefficiencies and exorbitant administration costs.

And, on a smaller scale, being truthful and sharing information about the detail of your fundraising successes will help to build trust, loyalty and commitment with your donors.

But perhaps you’re still looking at the brass tacks. ‘We asked for €50,000 for project X and we raised €100,000. Surely if we tell donors this, when we go back and ask them for €50,000 for ‘project Y, they won’t donate.’

Again, I think this is wrong. Donors aren’t stupid. They know that the costs of running a nonprofit or charity are extensive and far greater than one appeal will ever meet. They’ll feel positive that you’re raising so much money to help the cause that they support and believe in. I don’t think sharing your success will reduce future income. I think it will increase it, as donors see just how far their donations can go.

At a time when there’s such scepticism about ‘professional’ fundraising and a widespread belief that most of the money doesn't go to the end user, to be able to say that not just the money we asked for, but far more is going to help the end user is a fantastic opportunity: one that shouldn’t be passed up.

1 comment:

  1. Good articles. The points are well-made but what would be the prescription for an organisation in a similar situation to Bullying UK?

    Should they lie about their true situation lest it 'demotivates' donors? Clearly telling the truth in this instance didn't do them any favours. Should they tell everyone that things are ticking over just fine - in fact better than fine - in the hope that 'social proof' will swing the pendulum back in their favour? That sounds a bit like what the strategy of Irish banks probably was before they got found out.

    It's easy to shout from the rooftops about your success but it's important that organisations are frank about their failures and shortcomings too; especially with those who support them, financially or otherwise.

    My own feeling is that all too often charities, NGOs, philanthropic organisations, etc are mired in a culture of opportunistic secrecy. And it's a culture that spreads like a disease. A bit like 'social proof' operating in the opposite vein. If everyone else is adopting a cagey position, especially the more senior practitioners, then it becomes a sort of role model for everyone else. The root of the problem is as Robert Cialdini appears to suggest: 'people don't know what they are doing', they are looking elsewhere, to someone else who's probably in the same situation if the truth were to be told.

    I don't think social proof is the sole or even the prime motivator. Greater than the need for acceptance is the need to invest one's life with meaning, purpose and direction. Understand that and you're on your way to understanding why people give. All fundraising should be built on this central proposition.