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[Tips for Nonprofits] The Art and Science of Persuasive Fundraising

By on Apr 12, 2017


peer-to-peer fundraising tips for nonprofits

A while ago, I read a book called Influence Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini. In this book Cialdini wrote about why he was always duped into buying Girl Scout cookies. Each year, he was persuaded to buy more boxes than the year before. As a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, he wanted to understand why he, a psychology professor, was persuaded to buy more and more boxes every year.

As a result, he wrote this book and shared many of the different ways someone can exercise influence over another. Being in the nonprofit sector, it is no different, whether seeking fundraising dollars or volunteer help. So, let’s break down each of the ideas in this book to better understand how we can be better (and more persuasive) fundraising professionals in the nonprofit industry.

1. Reciprocation

Boiled down, the idea of reciprocation says that,”we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us” and further,” all human societies subscribe to this rule.” What this idea essentially says is, if we do something for someone else, they are more likely to do something for us.

Persuasive Fundraising Tip: If you remember a supporter’s birthday or anniversary, they’re more likely to remember your organization when asked for a donation. Further, if someone receives your services, or a family member does, that individual is likely to remember you when it comes time to volunteer or make a donation. Be sure to capture important information about your supporters—Birthdays, Anniversaries, and their connection to your cause—and use this information to craft your fundraising appeal strategy.

2. Commitment and Consistency

Commitment and consistency is the idea that, “once we make a choice or take a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.” Cialdini uses the example of a political sign in one’s front yard. A campaign operative asks the homeowner to put a small sign in their front yard. A short while later, the operative returns and says how successful the campaign is going and asks to replace that sign with a slightly larger sign.

Cialdini claims that, “once we made up our minds about issues, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: we don’t have to think hard about the issues anymore.” Sometimes, this psychological principle runs counter logical reasoning, “because it is a preprogrammed and mindless method of responding, automatic consistency can supply a safe hiding place from troubling realizations.”

Persuasive Fundraising Tip: If you can get someone to make a small commitment, they’re more likely to make a larger commitment  down the road. No one wants to be a flip-flopper. Think of this as the “foot-in-the-door technique”.

3. Social Proof

Social proof is the idea that,” if the Joneses are doing it, I should be doing too” and “we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct.” This idea can be exemplified with the example of advocacy. If I see that other people have signed the petition, I’m more likely to sign the petition myself. It’s also the concept of “salting the tip jar” where a bartender may put a couple of their own dollars and a tip jar to symbolize and suggest that those who are patrons should be tipping because others have as well.

The idea of social proof works best when, “we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct.” Again, using the example of advocacy, policy can be very complex, when we find it easy to take action alert, it is easy for us to make a decision that when others stand with us, we should stand with them, otherwise known as, “pluralistic ignorance”. Another example, is when someone fails to act when someone is in trouble because other people nearby are also failing to act. “The principle of social group operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us.”

Persuasive Fundraising Tip: It is up to you, the nonprofit professional, to bring similar people together and get them to act so that others can see that people similar to themselves are acting and those people witnessing the act will be more prone to take action themselves. This can become a cascading effect.

4. Liking

This psychological principle can be best exemplified by the Tupperware party where “we must prefer to say yes to the request of people we know and like.” This idea is where we buy from a friend rather than an unknown salesperson, and “the obligation of friendships [is] brought to bear on the sales setting… the strength of that social bond is twice as likely to determine product purchase as is preference for the product itself.”

This is peer-to-peer fundraising in a nutshell. The concept is that a friend will ask another friend for a donation to their personal fundraising page, and the person making the donation may have no connection whatsoever to your nonprofit organization.

Persuasive Fundraising Tip: It is your job  to create evangelists for your cause from these donors because likely they do not know who you are or what you stand for, only that the friend asked them to make a donation to their personal fundraising page. So, with every follow-up, with every autoresponder, with every touch point, it is encumbent upon you to emphasize your mission and your activities to bring more of these donors into the fold to become fundraisers themselves.

5. Authority

The psychological principle of authority can be best exemplified with the example of the Nuremberg trials after World War II and trials of Confederate soldiers after the Civil War. Soldiers were, “just following orders” in their defense of the execution of Jews at concentration camps and for the Confederate soldiers, in defense of the conditions of prisons for those soldiers who were captured as prisoners of war. “We are trained from birth to believe that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong… we rarely agonize… over the pros and cons of authority demands.”

Persuasive Fundraising Tip: Because nonprofits are so intimately tied to an issue or mission, they can speak with authority over that issue and convince others to take action on their behalf. You, the nonprofit professional, are the expert people turn to as a valuable resource in explaining the issue as well as, when asking for action, will follow your lead and are more likely to take action.

6. Scarcity

“Act now! Before it’s too late! Our matching donor is only allowing us to collect donations until midnight. Will you help us reach our goal?” How many times have we heard this coming from a nonprofit organization or used this strategic tactic to convince others that now is the time to donate? This example plays on the principle of scarcity because there is limited time to make a donation. One cannot wait until tomorrow. One cannot wait six months. One cannot wait until next year. Because the time is now. Cialdini states that, “opportunities seem more viable to us when they’re less available.”

Persuasive Fundraising Tip: This idea can go beyond the mere use of time and include opportunities for experiences and/or goods from premiums that come with a donation, such as sunglasses or T-shirts, or even a lapel pin, to a chance to sit down with the CEO and/or Executive Director to discuss the direction of your nonprofit organization. This psychological principle can be used in many ways to encourage supporters to act quickly.

7. Instant Influence

This psychological principle is when we, as individuals, hold onto a single piece of information that is relevant to making a decision rather than considering an entire argument or all the evidence. “In deciding whether to say yes or no to a requester, we tend to pay attention to a single piece of the relevant information in the situation… We are likely to use these lone cues when we don’t have the inclination, time, energy, or cognitive resources to undertake a complete analysis of the situation.”

Many of your nonprofit supporters are parents or are busy with their lives, shuttling kids back and forth between soccer practice and Little League or hitting a work deadline or just getting to the next location, in transit. For some of us, getting the entire picture is not as important as taking action and moving on to the next thing in our busy lives. This persuasion principle plays out very well online and especially in e-mail, because often we find that people view a webpage or e-mail message for less than 1 minute before either moving on or taking action.

Persuasive Fundraising Tip: Your supporters are served an “avalanche of information” and it is up to us, as nonprofit professionals, to distill the information for the end user to enable them to quickly make a decision to take action or not. As a best practice, I recommend beginning each e-mail message with the ask first and then providing supplemental information to support that ask. Think of it as an inverted pyramid. When drafting a direct mail, we tend to provide a lot of supporting information up front and, at the end, ask for a donation or action. When in an electronic medium, we don’t have that much time to convey what we want to ask, so start with the ask up front.

So, what does this all mean?

When employing these psychological techniques, we can better deliver our message and persuade others to act. You can combine many of these principles together in a single ask as well as deliver them individually if necessary. The first step here, is understanding these principles to be able to employ them as a tool in communications with supporters and volunteers to ensure you are effectively delivering the message where these individuals can take action because you persuaded them to do so. It is my hope that the distillation of the concepts in this book provides you with a starting point in getting others to take action on your behalf as well as create curiosity to learn more. There are many more examples in Cialdini’s book and I recommend picking up a copy for yourself. You’ll be glad you did because it can help you as a nonprofit professional when seeking to influence the decisions of others in your everyday activities.


Will was lucky enough to work with many Congressional offices on Capitol Hill and nationally recognized nonprofits in Washington, DC to manage their online and e-mail marketing campaigns as well as their social media and Web presence. He holds a Masters of Public Administration with a Concentration in Nonprofit Management from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Nevada, Reno in political science with a Spanish minor.

He currently serves in the capacity of Senior Implementation Analyst at Blackbaud, deploying new and existing clients as a product specialist for all things Blackbaud Luminate Online with some web development projects sprinkled in for fun.  His passion lies in all things politics, snowboarding, and gaming and web marketing and design.  He is a husband and father of three young children working remote out of Reno, Nevada. To learn more about Will, please visit his website at WillHull.com.


Comments (1)

  • belgravia says:

    From Non-profit Consulting experiences, I think that, there’s no denying that fundraising is an art. Great storytelling and the art of building relationships will always be part of the formula for fundraising success.

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