Last Monday (as I do every Monday), I listened to the latest episode of This American Life. It’s a podcast and weekly radio show from Chicago Public Media, and each episode never fails to inform and inspire me in some way.
The episode that I listened to last week was titled The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind. The Prologue and Act 1 of the show focus on a story of political canvassers who are trying to change voters’ minds on hot button topics like marriage equality and climate control. In essence, these canvassers are trying to acquire new voter support. Of course, the challenge is that people do not often change their minds on issues like these.
Surprisingly though, a group of political scientists and organizers figured out a way to do the impossible. They changed voters’ minds. If you’d like to read the short version of the study’s findings, check out this press release.
As I listened to this episode (which I highly recommend listening to), it stuck me that as fundraisers we are facing similar challenges. Our goal – we want to persuade and compel people to donate money to our cause. Yes, we may already have a group of committed donors and those people might not take as much persuading. But we also want to acquire new support and as we know, acquisition is expensive.
How to Effectively Persuade Donors
Although the story told during B This American Life focuses on political influence, there are ways to apply the findings to fundraising. Here are 4 of the key takeaways about persuasion and how they could apply to non-profit fundraising.
A) Give your audience room to talk and listen to them. In the episode, this is one of the learnings that the canvassers had early on. They realized that rather than telling people what they want them to think, they had to listen to what they currently think and then try to persuade based on where this person is at. The same goes for donors and potential donors. We have to know where they are at in terms of opinion and knowledge before we can effectively persuade them. This is why donor surveys are one of the most powerful tools at our disposal.
What are their attitudes towards your cause? How do they feel about it? Why do they care, or not care? When your audience tells you something that is emotional or important, explore that more.
B) Think about audience diversity if you are trying to acquire new donors. It’s key to talk to people who have differing opinions or, in the case of fundraising, might not otherwise give to your organization. Why? Because we want to understand why they don’t support it. Again, this finding emphasizes the importance of research, listening, and understanding.
C) You must use a personal story. Persuasion was most effective when the person talking to the voter was directly affected by the issue (I.e. they are gay and wanted to marry their partner). This is also loosely fits with Marshall Ganz work on story of self, which is when you use a personal story about your values and experience to get others involved with a cause.
Your audience needs to be exposed to someone who is has been affected by the issue that you want donors to support. One of the clearest takeaways from this study is one-to-one conversations hold immense power. In fundraising, we also know that one-to-one conversations are powerful because of the success of peer-to-peer and major gifts. My inclination is to say that we need to find ways to scale the effects and intimacy of this kind of conversation.
D) An appeal that focuses on abstract concepts isn’t as effective because it keeps the conversation in the rational level. For an appeal to work, we need to move the audience into an emotional level. Storytelling is all about taking your audience on a journey from thinking to feeling. Without a story, it’s rare that you will move your audience to an emotional level.
Reflecting on this has brought to mind some interesting research questions where I would like to explore applying this political research to service providing non-profits who want to acquire new support. Specifically looking at these two questions:
1) Is there a more effective way to acquire new donors?
2) Could this more effective way involve a more strategic use of storytelling?
Although I don’t plan to pursue this research right away, I am curious to know what your experiences have been with acquisition. What have you tired? Did it work? Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts.