The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 42

The Behavioral Science of Rallying Support in the Digital Age, with Sarah Welch

In this Episode:

The digital age, accelerated by the pandemic, has pushed most activities, including fundraising online. That has opened up our stories to audiences around the world. At the same time, that has removed some of the personal connection that we have to each other and causes.

Sarah Welch is a behavioral scientist and Vice President at ideas42. She focuses her time thinking about—and helping organizations—affect positive change through the principals of behavioral science.

Sarah joined the show to chat about what’s been happening in the nonprofit world. How do we navigate the changing landscape and rally support for causes large and small?

Listen to this Episode

[00:00:05.210] – Intro Video
Welcome to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast and podcast where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better world for all of us. Da Ding!

[00:00:21.370] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of my favorite topics. I do have a few. I’d love to geek out about many things. One of them is behavioral science and specifically the ways that we could apply the insights of behavioral science that have come out over the last—I don’t know, 20, 30 years now that have really changed the way we understand human behavior, how to apply those towards for good causes like nonprofit communications, like fundraising, like making the world a better place for all of us.

[00:00:56.090] – Boris
Today, I’ve got Sarah Welch with me on the show. She is the Vice President of ideas42, where she helps lead behavioral innovations in two focused areas; improving the way donors at all levels give to charity and tackling climate change. Prior to joining ideas42, Sarah completed a three-year dual-degree program at Yale School of Management and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where she focused on urban resource management and planning.

[00:01:23.770] – Boris
In her past life, Sarah was an ecological designer, restoring natural habitats in and around New York City, which is pretty cool. Sarah holds an MBA and an MEM from Yale and received her BA in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard. She’d take cheese over cake any day. Sarah describes her superpower as using behavioral science, which gives us a deep understanding of why humans do what they do to unlock better giving by donors to the organizations they care about. And if that’s not an ideal topic for one of our shows, I don’t know what is. So with that, let’s bring Sarah onto the show.

[00:02:00.910] – Sarah Welch
Hi. Hi, Boris.

[00:02:03.390] – Boris
Hi, Sarah. Welcome. Thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate your time. I read your impressive bio with all the impressive schools that you attended. I’m sure you have a lot of great stuff to share with us. Now you have to live up to that bio, of course.

[00:02:17.790] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. Jeez, thanks for setting expectations.

[00:02:21.430] – Boris
But let’s just start with something simple, which is, what’s your story? Why are you doing what you do today?

[00:02:29.050] – Sarah Welch
I love that question. So now I work in behavioral science, right? And I try to understand why humans do what they do. But as you recounted so accurately, I started my career working in landscape design and ecology. I thought I wanted to be a landscape architect, and so I had this kind of did all this work and I eventually went to Grad school, felt a little lost. While I was at Grad school, I discovered behavioral economics, of course, at Yale and kind of had this light bulb moment where I realized the thing that it was so interesting to me about nature and the environment and landscape wasn’t actually… the trees are wonderful. Right. That’s really cool.

[00:03:13.450] – Sarah Welch
But the thing that would be interesting was how humans interacted with that landscape. Right? How are humans taking cues from their environment and then making decisions? And so when I discovered behavioral economics, behavioral science, one of the key tenets of that, is that our context and what’s around us, our environment is influencing our behavior and our biases. That for me was just like, oh, this is it. This is what I’ve been looking for. And so after grad school, I founded ideas42 and I’ve been doing this work ever since. And I still like trees, but it’s a different feeling about them now.

[00:03:51.830] – Boris
Now you help more people understand why they like trees and why they’re important.

[00:03:55.440] – Sarah Welch

[00:03:56.160] – Boris
And why they should value them, because, you know, little thing called climate change.

[00:04:02.310] – Sarah Welch
Right. So I mean, the social impact piece is really important to me. Right? So I could have, I guess, just left and gone and worked in… marketing has a lot of the same aspects to it. But for me, I still had that social impact drive and ideas42, we’re a nonprofit organization also, and we work across the spectrum. So in my time there, I’ve been lucky enough to work on education projects and health projects and criminal justice, climate change, eventually. And now philanthropy and giving, which has been super fascinating.

[00:04:36.990] – Boris
I love, love, love behavioral science. It can be applied to so many different things. It’s really a way of understanding how our brains work and how we respond to things and really take action. Why we take action, why we do the things we do. What are the stories we tell ourselves about the things that we do, which I’m always fascinated about in every single webinar I do, or course that I present, I quote Danny Kahneman who is… correct me if I’m wrong, one of the fathers of behavioral economics and behavioral science as a whole, who said that no one ever made a decision because of a number they need a story. To me, that’s just total validation that, A. Storytelling is critical but, B. That behavioral science and understanding how people think and why they do the things they do will really help us help them make the decisions that are going to benefit all of us in the end.

[00:05:35.700] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. I drink the Kool-Aid. I believe in all that. I find it so compelling personally, too. Right. I mean just right now I told you a story about how I became interested in behavioral economics. And to be quite honest, that’s something that developed after the fact. It’s just something that we all do as humans is we tell our stories afterwards. Right. We have the storytelling urge.

[00:05:55.470] – Boris
Yeah. It’s the way we organize information in our brains. We need some sort of causality. We need a beginning, middle, end to it. We need that moment of discovery or overcoming an obstacle. Otherwise, it doesn’t really feel as fulfilling in a lot of ways. I wish it was simpler because I’d sure be happy to not have to go through several obstacles to get to epiphanies and things like that. But it works, and it’s getting us… society forward for the most part. Occasionally we take a step back, but I’m happy to geek out about all this stuff all day.

[00:06:26.350] – Boris
But let’s focus in on what hopefully our audiences are interested in, which is specifically how to apply this stuff to nonprofits and the work that we’re doing. What are you seeing out there in the nonprofit space these days? I know that lots has been going on, obviously over the last couple of years, specifically. And then with the development and new concepts in behavioral science, talk to us Sarah. What’s happening out there?

[00:06:51.080] – Sarah Welch
Well, there’s so much that I would love to cover. And Boris, I encourage you… I have so many colleagues who are working all sorts of interesting things and so many other people in the space. I spend a lot of my time now focused on philanthropy, which is really saying, why do people give, whether that’s time or money or voice or energy, whatever it is, why are we altruistic? Why do we help others? It doesn’t actually rationally really make that much sense. And so it’s actually quite behavioral and really fascinating to dig into that.

[00:07:24.910] – Sarah Welch
And sort of the overall challenge there is that over the past decade or so, I think household giving has been going down so trending downward people. And to be clear, what we’re talking about when we say that is like tax-deductible gifts that can be recorded that we see. Right. So the pandemic might have contributed to a little bit of an upward momentary blip there. But generally it’s been going downward. And that’s fascinating and challenging for the nonprofit sector that a lot of nonprofits rely on that type of fundraising to carry them forward.

[00:08:03.610] – Sarah Welch
It also means that people who are billionaires with lots of money to give suddenly will continue to have outside voice and disproportionate voice in the sector. And that comes with its own sort of challenges, even if they mean well, they are kind of unelected people with a huge amount of power. So there is an argument to continue to have these individual voices being part of how the nonprofit fundraising sector works. Right. Yeah. In that space, we’ve seen this downward trend.

[00:08:38.830] – Sarah Welch
But then there’s been other things, I think lately that we think a lot about. One is that the pandemic really did shift a lot of things. Right? It caused the whole nation, the whole world really, I think… to have a reckoning with equity and ask questions about like who has power and why do they have that power? And how do we shift it if we need to? What does it mean to be part of a community? How do we interact with people virtually if we have to rather than in person? All those things have come to bear on the philanthropic sector as well.

[00:09:09.620] – Sarah Welch
And so I’ve seen a lot of discussion right around. Like how do we take those questions of power and bring those into giving and who’s donating and to where are they donating? But also what counts as giving? Right. So in the pandemic, we saw this rise in mutual aid, which is not counted when we do the tax deductible giving. Right. But there’s also just like you and I don’t know, being kind to our neighbors or helping someone out or during the pandemic, it became a thing about shopping local, right? Are you supporting restaurants and giving big tips? All of those things all kind of come together into one big picture about what it means to be a generous and kind of person in a community. So there’s been a lot of talking too now about how do we recognize that type of giving?

[00:09:53.230] – Boris
I want to break down a lot of that stuff because it’s absolutely fascinating and critical to understand in greater detail. So I did an episode a little while back with Doug White, who is a philanthropy expert as well. And we talked about this that, yes, overall giving actually has gone up while individual per capita giving has gone down. So philanthropists are the bigger philanthropists, let’s just say, let’s call them billionaires for lack of better word. But honestly, anybody over $10 million that’s giving a net worth, that’s giving so much more than an average person.

[00:10:30.920] – Boris
If the majority of people are giving less and the minority are giving more, then the minority can dictate what programs get funded, which nonprofits they’re interested in and the types of work that they’re doing, that’s what’s going to happen. Even schools and universities get funding from big-name philanthropists who may or may not want their name on a building. And that dictates the direction they could go, because that’s the money that they could spend on certain things. So it’s definitely an issue and a cause for concern in our society today, where we want that element of our network of our… what is it called? The social safety net, if you will. To be more democratic for the entire population in one way or another, to get a say in what we think is most important today for those of us who are perhaps less privileged or for society as a whole. So that’s definitely an issue that I recognize and appreciate that you’re working on to help solve.

[00:11:37.900] – Boris
The other things that you’re talking about in terms of the trade offs in the different types of giving that are going on and how things aren’t measured. Yeah, during coronavirus during the heights of the pandemic, it was a lot more about coming together as a community, protecting each other, hopefully in various ways, even the act of wearing a mask when you’re not afraid yourself you’re going to get coronavirus, but you’re wearing it to protect others. There’s something that gets reinvigorated in our social stream of consciousness, in our social contract to each other, where we feel more responsible to our neighbors and sometimes even to virtual neighbors around the world. Right?

[00:12:22.230] – Sarah Welch
Right. The virtual piece, I think, is super interesting. Right? And that’s another trend that I don’t think it’s going to go away is that, in general, we now have all these digital tools available to us, and in many ways, it makes things like giving much easier. Right? I can text a small number to give 10 bucks to somebody. Right? Or I can find something. I can find any charity I want online and send them a donation. But in other ways, there are trade offs there, too, because the old fashioned way of somebody coming up to you and asking you to give actually has a lot more weight when it’s so social and visible. And we are social creatures. And so I think there’s some trade offs there that we’ve been looking at, too. The rise in digital tools may have some trade offs in the social norm space. I think there’s something we can do with that. But that’s been another tension I think that we see in the space.

[00:13:18.190] – Boris
So dig into that for me. What is it that makes us give if someone is coming to us in person to ask? And I could visualize it in my head right now someone asking me that.

[00:13:30.480] – Sarah Welch
Yeah, it’s normal to feel that… as you describe that, what that feels like.

[00:13:32.300] – Boris
Yeah. It’s hard to say no to someone, to someone’s face unless you’re a New Yorker and are constantly being asked for money on the street. And at some point you feel like it’s overwhelming. It’s too much. You can’t help everybody so you stop. A lot of New Yorkers, and I’m sure homelessness is on the rise around the country. I’m sure not just in New York. But why is that more powerful than a digital ask and then what do we do about that?

[00:14:04.540] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. I mean, we’re ultimately such social creatures. Right. The behavioral economic phenomenon that we talk a lot about is social norms as described, basically refers to the fact that we are always subconsciously, even if not consciously comparing ourselves to our peers, especially in situations where we’re not quite sure what the right behavior is. And giving is full of that. Right. We’re never quite sure. Like, I don’t know. Should I give to this charity? Is this the right one? How much should I give things like that? And so that means that we are, I think, even more susceptible in cases where somebody’s asking you for money, ask you for a specific amount to those types of influences.

[00:14:46.430] – Sarah Welch
There’s research specific to charity about this. It sounds a little bit silly, but people will literally go out of their way to avoid being asked because of the guilt. Right. There’s a level of guilt that comes with saying no. They ran a study in like a shopping mall that had two exits. Right. And people went out of the way to avoid it was literally Santa Claus, I think ringing a bell to avoid that ask. And so, yeah, we’re just ultimately so social that it’s really hard to say no.

[00:15:14.130] – Sarah Welch
But I do think there’s something interesting here too, where, again, you imagine you are that person getting that ask, right. You feel a little icky. But after you make that donation, most of the time you still feel pretty good. You still have what we call “warm glow” from that donation. And that’s true of a lot of other sorts of pro-social activities. Maybe wearing the mask, right. You kind of feel pressured by other people to wear a mask, but you do feel good ultimately that you’re wearing that mask.

[00:15:43.070] – Sarah Welch
And so I think there is—it’s attention. And I don’t know if the answer is totally to get rid of it or rely too heavily on it. But we do see that when you make things sometimes to make things so easy, we put them online. Right? You remove that social aspect.

[00:15:59.630] – Sarah Welch
There’s one example that comes to mind. I think the combined federal campaign, the CFC, right. Sort of famous—or infamous, maybe depending how you felt about it—fundraising effort within the federal government. And the sort of old fashioned approach was people walking around, the pledge captains walking around, the office with clipboards and saying, “Hey, Boris, will you donate this year? How much are you going to give out of your paycheck?” And that’s social pressure, right? You would feel very obligated to contribute. I’m putting my reputation on the line by asking you and the CFC in general have been going down, just like individual giving overall have been trending downward for a number of years.

[00:16:40.690] – Sarah Welch
And I think somewhere around 2017 or so, in an attempt to make it at least easier to give, they put it all online. They got rid of the whole paper system. And that was also the year that they saw the biggest decrease. So suddenly you’ve taken away that social pressure. But you had put it online where the behavior was mostly invisible. And I don’t know, maybe Boris, you’re donating. But maybe you’re also just browsing the Internet on TikTok or whatever people did in 2017. So those trade offs are everywhere. Right. And again, I think there are ways that we can make digital tools still have that compelling social angle. But I think it’s an interesting thing to come to reckon with. Are we okay with that trade off if you’re not pressuring people? And what do you give up?

[00:17:26.570] – Boris
Yeah. So I’m personally all about digital adoption. But I’m also about storytelling and behavioral science and I totally understand. I used to live in Los Angeles, and I’d be walking in Santa Monica or on the streets of New York, and there would be a team of youngish adults with signs and clipboards and saying, “Hey, can I ask you a question? Do you like animals?” Or something like that. They’re just trying to rope you into a conversation. And, yeah, talk about avoidance. I would cross the street to go around them because I didn’t have time and I knew I might get sucked in or because I would feel guilty saying no in that specific situation.

[00:18:04.730] – Boris
I don’t know if there’s a direct translation to the digital version online. You’re right. We keep trying to remove friction. We keep trying to make it as easy as possible, going to the work of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The default option. The easiest option is the one that people are going to take the most. And please correct me if I’m wrong. But I think one of the biggest discoveries that they made in terms of behavior, whereas economics used to think of it as it’s all about reward and punishment, getting people to behave in certain ways and take certain actions. Behavioral economics said, actually, it’s a lot more nuanced than that because we’re not all econs, and the easiest way to get somebody to do something is to just make that the easiest path for them to go down. Right?

[00:18:55.110] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. Hassles are a real problem. They’re a real barrier. Tiny little things that we think don’t matter matter so much.

[00:19:04.610] – Boris
So, in digital fundraising specifically, but in general, in digital marketing and methodology, we’re always trying to make things as frictionless as possible. At the same time, we’re trying to get people to take the actions by telling them stories that help them connect to that particular cause, to a particular person perhaps. How do we find the balance? I don’t think there’s a virtual version of that gauntlet that I might walk down in Santa Monica or in New York where there are people on both sides of me trying to get my attention asking me, and maybe we don’t want that gauntlet. But how do we compensate for what we’re losing?

[00:19:46.370] – Sarah Welch
I know. I go back and forth on this, right? Like, do we want that gauntlet? You do see some of this in social media, right? Like Facebook introduced fundraising a while ago. Right? And that provides social visibility, social norming. During the pandemic we saw a lot of people talking either again online and then mostly or virtually about the actions that they’re taking that are pro-social, that are generous, that are helping people. So you get some of that, right. You’ll get some pressure from that.

[00:20:19.760] – Sarah Welch
I do think—I remember actually talking to one of our partners. She was saying that it’s super easy to get people to share things like lots and lots of people will share things online. So people love—you post something like, here’s a creative way to give back. And people are like, that’s great. Like, like, like. Share, share, share. But then they don’t actually donate. It’s very easy to get people to virtually saying all this, basically. Right. That’s what happens. That can happen in the virtual space.

[00:20:45.030] – Sarah Welch
But I do think there’s something promising. Again, I don’t think we cracked it yet… but I do think there’s something promising there. There are ways to think about, how do you hit that balance so that you can still bring in some of that social aspect? Or, I don’t know—sometimes I’m also like, maybe we need to just find some ways to bring it back into the in-person space as well. I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

[00:21:10.250] – Boris
Well, we’ll give you a little bit of slack on this one. It’s not the easiest problem to solve, but come back to us in a week and we want to you to have an answer.

[00:21:17.500] – Sarah Welch
Right. Right.

[00:21:19.130] – Boris
There are of course, most organizations want to go back to the in-person events, to the in-person fundraising dinners and galas, because there is that social aspect, there is that social pressure, the person to the left of me and the person to the right of me just gave X amount of dollars. Well, I feel now that I should do my best, maybe even compete and outdo them, but at least try to match them or present that.

[00:21:45.610] – Boris
Well, I am a person who cares too, in one way or another. I know, actually, as we were talking, I was thinking Zoom recently introduced their in-meeting donation functionality. And one of the great things about it is when you give, it will let you instantly put up a little banner under your photo that says you gave. And talk about social pressure, if you’re seeing a screen of 12 faces or nine in that TV show format that… Where’s Alice? Sorry. If you’re seeing everyone else around you all of a sudden have that little banner. Oh, I gave, I gave, I gave. Yeah. You’re going to feel that pressure. So maybe there are ways to work that back in on the social and the digital side.

[00:22:32.860] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. That’s super interesting. I admit, I didn’t know about that. And now I really want to try it out. That’s awesome. I’m going to check… look into that because I think that yeah, that helps. Right? That’s different. That’s no longer like on a social media platform with some distance. That’s very intimate. That’s very like these are your peers giving in the moment. So I like that. That’s really interesting.

[00:22:52.430] – Boris
So we have the personal side of things. And I know that in behavioral science, and I know you work with this sort of thing. We talk a lot about telling that story, getting across that you can help a specific human being or an animal perhaps that we try to get someone to connect to a specific outcome in a specific person’s or someone’s life. What happens when we’re trying to impact more than just one person or one small community?

[00:23:31.100] – Boris
Now that we’re online, one of the advantages—one of the disadvantages that I should say first that you brought up, is now everyone’s online. And so now it’s who basically has the best marketing capability to get out there in front of people, right? Not necessarily who does the best work and has the greatest impact because we don’t respond to numbers, as Danny Kahneman said, we respond to stories. But one of the advantages is we can now find people around the world that are interested in what we’re doing in our little corner of the world or in the way that we’re trying to help the world to recover or to heal or to progress.

[00:24:14.070] – Boris
So where does behavioral science come in when we’re talking about bigger cause pictures and things that are not perhaps something that I myself can solve with a donation?

[00:24:28.610] – Sarah Welch
Right. And that’s the other fascinating, actually, when you read my bio, the other thing that I focus on is climate change. And climate change is exact… I mean, this is the problem. Climate change behaviorally speaking, is hitting all of the wrong buttons, right? It’s long term. It’s vague. It doesn’t affect me personally, right? It might generally, but not in the same way. The effects aren’t very salient to me. And anything I do today feels like a drop in the bucket. Right. So all of those things make it so hard for us as humans to take action on climate change.

[00:25:04.950] – Sarah Welch
And if you contrast that right with one of the most effective stories that you can tell in philanthropy for fundraising, it’s like the super compelling, specific problem. There’s a classic example from, I think, like the 80s of a baby fell down a well in Texas. I think her name was Jessica. So baby Jessica is stuck in a well and we need some money to get her out. And then it’s like, oh, my God, it’s a baby. She’s stuck in a well, she has a name. And I know that if I give some money, they’ll be able to save her, and the problem will be solved.

[00:25:38.320] – Sarah Welch
And for us as humans, that’s the opposite of climate change. Right. That’s like, take all my money and solve that problem, please. And I will feel so good about it. And so I think the challenge is, how do you learn from baby Jessica and apply it to climate change? Or maybe climate change is… maybe that’s like really, really hard. So let’s step back and at least try something like anti-poverty work. Right. How can we not just raise money to solve the symptoms? Right? Like, it’s great to provide people with food and help children and all that. But can we get at the sort of the underlying causes of poverty instead? And that type of work is way broader. Right. And it doesn’t have that specific, compelling story. But I think this is something we’re hoping to do some work on, actually.

[00:26:25.360] – Sarah Welch
I think that there is something there, like maybe we can take something that is a big social change issue and try to break it down and give it that level of urgency, like do a super urgent, old fashioned. What is it like the thermostat kind of, like type of fundraiser around something that is a big social change issue, like some aspect of climate change or some aspect of anti-poverty work that you can fundraise the same way.

[00:26:52.520] – Sarah Welch
Like, can we bring some of the urgency and specific stories to something that is a big intractable problem? I think there is something promising there. Again, that’s where you see people taking the most action. So again, taking the behavioral features of those challenges and could we try to translate them to these big problems? Don’t have the answer again to that one either, Boris, but I think there’s something there. And yeah, check back with me in like, maybe two weeks, at least for that one.

[00:27:20.300] – Boris
Well, with the holidays, I understand it might be a little backlog. So actually, there are definitely nonprofits that are working on that kind of a scale. One that comes to mind is New Story Charity. They’re working to end global homelessness. And they are innovating, specifically technological answers to homelessness, which doesn’t sound like a technology problem. It sounds like a physical and low on the high or low, depending on which way you’re looking at the pyramid Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s critical. And yet they are innovating constantly.

[00:27:58.130] – Boris
They are famous for 3D printing an entire community in Mexico. 3D printing—I don’t remember how many homes for an entire community in Mexico. And there are definitely people—when I spoke to actually, her name is also Sarah. Sarah Lee from New Story. She was telling me that there are people who will invest in that specifically, they’re attracted to the fact that we can make a difference on a huge scale and tackle some of the sources, but also tackle en masse some of the issues that we’re facing versus helping house one family.

[00:28:40.050] – Boris
What’s interesting is they then still tie the outcomes to a specific gift. So if you give, they will match you essentially with a family within that community that they’re building houses for. And you get to see their story from beginning to end, where they move into their new home. You get to hear from them. And they’re great about delivering the video to the donor, showing this whole process because you might not be there in Mexico to see it. But you get that full reward cycle that reinforces the story of why you gave in the first place.

[00:29:19.360] – Sarah Welch
Yeah, that’s great. And that also reminds me of some other new research I saw that I really was excited by around those narratives. And so the traditional thinking had been that we need to show people… we need to tell really sad stories to people. We need to show people stories that kind of reframing the people you’re helping as like victims in a way that other research that actually ideas42 and others have done like suggest that if you tell someone they’re a victim, that doesn’t necessarily empower them, that can actually be quite a negative psychological experience.

[00:29:54.390] – Sarah Welch
And so there was some new research that came out showing that actually you can still fundraise with these empowering narratives that are… and maybe this fits in with the story you were just telling, right. But something much more empowering showing someone still getting help, but not in the same sort of native troops that we were so used to in the past. So that’s something else I think that we’re also really excited about.

[00:30:14.580] – Boris
Yeah. I’ve talked and worked with organizations that are worried about sharing clients stories because they feel it’s exploitative. And the answer I agree with you is show the empowerment, not the victimhood. And that’s what we all ultimately want to give towards anyway. We want to empower people. We don’t want to feel bad for them. We don’t want to pity them. We want empathy. We want to evoke empathy. But we also want to show that it’s something that we can all solve if we contribute to this cause in one way or another.

[00:30:47.850] – Sarah Welch
Right. Right. Yeah. Absolutely.

[00:30:49.710] – Boris
Well, unfortunately, we’re not going to solve all of the issues that we’d like to today. Maybe we’ll have you back in a little while to see what you’ve come up with and how you’ve been able to solve them. That’d be awesome. I’d love to continue this conversation. But for organizations that are listening for the nonprofit professionals or heroes in this case, that are looking to activate more heroes for their cause, what should they be thinking about? Where should they be evaluating maybe their marketing or their fundraising to help them activate, create more heroes for their cause?

[00:31:21.920] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. Great question. I think that specific space around like where can you take… especially if you’re working one of these big intractable problems. Right. Like, where can you break it down and create that urgency and that compelling narrative? Again, I’m going to go back to climate change because I’m familiar with the space, but I think for so long it’s changing a little bit now. There was such adherence to like scientific language and lots of rigor and how we spoke about it. And that goes against the sort of compelling narrative, human personal touch that we’ve just been talking about is so powerful.

[00:31:55.830] – Sarah Welch
And so taking something big like that, and where can you create that urgency, that compelling narrative and make it the specific—break it down to something specific and that feels solvable? One, if you can do that, that’s awesome. And two, if you are doing it, please reach out to me, and we can work on that more, because again, I feel like this is the thing that we need to do to unlock those more difficult areas of fundraising.

[00:32:19.170] – Boris
You’re reminding me of another study, and I don’t remember. My brain is not great at remembering details… I’m much better with concepts, so please feel free to fill in the blanks here. But there was an experiment done where they were trying to get people to save power, to not use as much electricity in their homes. And in letters that they sent to people from the power company, it basically said something like, on average, this is how you compare to your neighbors. And on average, last month, so and so saved X amount of kilowatt hours versus what you did and suggestions for how you might also lower yours.

[00:33:01.210] – Boris
And I feel like that kind of brings it back to you’re not walking down that gauntlet. And you’re not at an event with a lot of people seeing that they are giving and maybe you’re not. But it creates that social pressure of keeping up with the Joneses, if you will. But in this case, in a positive light of, well, other people are doing more for the environment, I probably should, too. That’s social pressure.

[00:33:27.710] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. That’s a great example, actually. That’s the Opower innovation. You probably get one of those. I get those reports now. They’re everywhere, and they are extremely effective. And it is super weird because nobody else sees you. Literally nobody knows. You could take that report and throw it away and never act on it. But just that subtle nudge of seeing that. Oh, actually, I’m not actually doing as well. Actually, if you interview people, most people think that they are above average about everything, but including energy conservation, but seeing that it’s like, oh, interesting. Good to know. Maybe there’s some changes I can make. Right.

[00:34:03.810] – Sarah Welch
Another interesting thing I will say about it is it’s not a gauntlet, right? It’s not visual, but people do. This is a strong word, but some people hate them. They still get that same visceral reaction, but it works. I don’t know. This is a weird thing about social norms is that they do make us uncomfortable sometimes those sorts of nudges, and yet they are really effective. And yeah, I don’t know. I’m not going to weigh in, I guess, on whether that’s good or bad.

[00:34:30.790] – Boris
Like everything, it could be used for good or it could be used for evil.

[00:34:34.020] – Sarah Welch
Exactly. Yeah. It does get used in both ways. Great example.

[00:34:40.250] – Boris
Awesome. Well, I really appreciate your time and expertise today. Are there any resources or tools that you recommend organizations check out if they want to look into this further, look into behavioral science or how to apply it to their own work?

[00:34:54.830] – Sarah Welch
Absolutely. I’ll list them out for you. I will also mention that the ideas42 website has a bunch of them on there, so you can always find like… you’ll find them there. So there is the Danny Kahneman seminal book on behavioral science, Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you want to get all of it downloaded into your brain, you can read that book.

[00:35:18.750] – Sarah Welch
I will say if you’re in a nonprofit and you’re working with people who are in any sort of scarce resource situation, maybe you’re working with families in poverty. There’s a book called Scarcity that I found that has been again foundational to ideas42’s work and others about how that in and of itself has like a psychological effect that’s important to understand.

[00:35:41.190] – Sarah Welch
But then back to philanthropy, getting more specific here. There are a couple of resources that I found really interesting recently. Earlier, I was talking about all the different ways that people give and want to make sure I give a shout out to Lucy Bernholz has a new book out called How We Give Now that gets into some of that and the different ways that people have been giving and how important it is to count those as well. Right. Those are important, too.

[00:36:07.580] – Sarah Welch
And then if you’re curious in learning more a little bit about some of what Boris you’re talking about about the dynamic of having super wealthy people dictating the direction of philanthropy. There is Anand… What’s his last name? Giridharadas. I’m bad too with last names.

[00:36:36.760] – Boris
Giridharadas, I want to say.

[00:36:37.450] – Sarah Welch
Yes, thank you. Giridharadas. His book Winners Take All, which is a few years old, but it has a pretty good summary of that. And there was actually… I’ll just even if you don’t have time to read the whole book, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but there is a New Yorker summary of the book from 2018 that I found super helpful that also gives some of the sort of history of the philanthropic movement and where it comes from and sort of the challenges there, because I think before I came into this, I was like, great, just make all the wealthiest people give away all their money. Why are we worried about everyday givers and everyday donors? But as I think you so eloquently covered, right. It’s the democratization aspect of it. So it’s actually quite important to have the voices of many people dictating that, where the money goes, especially because philanthropy is so personal. As I talked about earlier.

[00:37:28.410] – Boris
Yeah, we’ll link to all of those resources in our show notes, and we’ll link to both; the full book and the New Yorker article.

[00:37:34.240] – Sarah Welch
Thank you.

[00:37:34.690] – Boris
I won’t judge which one people read. I will try to read both honestly, but time is one of the most precious resources we have these days, and I totally understand why people might not have time to read an entire book and would prefer an article. So assuming that people are interested in this stuff, which I really hope they are, because it’s super important. Where can they follow up with you? What’s your call to action for our heroes at home?

[00:37:59.620] – Sarah Welch
Yeah. So I encourage you to go to the website. Boris, I can give you a link to our actual giving space. We’ve been doing this work for about five or six years, so we’ve published a fair amount of research and pieces covering all the things we talked about today. And we are continuing to do this work going forward, at least for the next few years and excited to kind of explore some of these new areas that have emerged and focus more on volunteering and some of the sort of new ways of giving that we see today.

[00:38:34.830] – Boris
Awesome. I look forward to checking those out. This episode will air after the holidays already, but this is going to give me some fun holiday reading in the meantime. Sarah, thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing your ideas, your questions. Even if we can’t solve all the problems, even knowing which questions to ask and how we should be thinking about things, I think is critical to ever making a difference in the world.

[00:38:59.670] – Sarah Welch
Absolutely. I fully agree. Again, fully drink the Kool-Aid. I love that type of thinking, so important.

[00:39:08.430] – Boris
Well, thanks again for joining us and thank you everybody for tuning in today, spending some time with Sarah and I learning about behavioral science and how we should be thinking about it and applying it to our work in the nonprofit world so that we can create more heroes for our cause. If you enjoyed this interview or any of the others that we’ve put out, and I hope you check out a lot more, including the one with New Story Charity with Sarah Lee, or another one about behavioral science that I had with Beth Karlin or Doug White talking about philanthropy.

[00:39:38.560] – Boris
I’m loving putting all of these episodes out. I’m learning a lot. I’m hoping you are too. If you’re enjoying them, please share it with your friends. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or on your favorite platform. We try to be everywhere. And if there’s something you want covered, let us know. I’m happy to reach out and find guests that will talk specifically about whatever you’re interested in so that we can help you create more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Thanks, everybody. Bye bye.

[00:40:05.850] – Sarah Welch
Thank you.

[00:40:06.570] – Outro Video
Thank you all for watching and listening to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. We hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform. And let us know what you think by leaving a review.

Concepts and Takeaways:

  • One of the key tenets of behavioral science is that our context and environment influences our behavior and our biases. (3:13)
  • Stories are the way that we organize information in our brains, and they’re often developed after we’ve taken action, to justify and make sense of the actions we’ve taken. (5:42)
  • Over the past decade, average household giving has been going down. Bigger philanthropists are having an outsized voice, giving them greater power over the nonprofit sector. (7:25)
  • Since the pandemic started, a lot has changed in terms of philanthropy and equity. The questions that Sarah is concerned with today are: (8:57)
    • Who has the power to give and why do they have it? And how do we shift that power if we need to?
    • What does it mean to be part of a community today? How can we interact with people virtually?
    • And even, what counts as giving?
  • As most people give less, larger donors can dictate the nonprofit programs that get to be funded to help the community. (10:30)
  • Digital tools have made giving a lot easier, but the decline of in-person asks actually has a negative effect because it’s much harder to say no to someone in person. (12:22)
  • Research studies have shown that people will literally go out of their way to avoid being asked for donations because of guilt. Because we are social creatures, there’s a level of guilt that we feel when we say “no” to someone asking for help. And, whenever we do give, we feel good because we know that in a way, we have helped someone in need. (13:32)
    • Taking away that social pressure has shown to lead to a decrease in giving.
  • Getting people to react to or share something on social media that they feel is a positive message or a cause that their friends should consider is relatively easy. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll actually donate. (19:04)
    • The real question now is how to get people to be involved virtually and get them to donate.
  • How do we reintroduce some of the social pressure into virtual events? (21:19)
  • One of the disadvantages to everyone being online is that often the best marketing efforts will win out, not the org with the greatest impact. At the same time, we have the potential to connect with more people around the world who would respond to our cause and our stories. (23:31)
  • It’s easier for people to connect with and feel like they can have an impact on helping a child in need than battling climate change, so they are more likely to support it. So we need to figure out how to bring urgency and specific stories to big issues like climate change and poverty into smaller, more tangible steps that people will take action on. (26:52)
    • In episode 17, Sarah Lee of New Story talks about how they are tackling the problem of global homelessness in part by asking individuals to support building a home for one family.
  • We don’t need to tell sad narratives of victimhood to engender empathy and support. Telling positive stories of empowerment can actually yield better results. (29:30)
  • There was an experiment conducted around energy conservation (Opower) where a letter was sent out from a power company comparing a household’s energy consumption habits to their neighbors. This actually created social pressure and a frame of reference that encouraged savings. (33:12)

Action Steps: What Now?

  • Resource Spotlight

    In this episode, the following resources were mentioned:

  • Start implementing!

    • Learn more about ideas42, behavioral science, and giving on their website.
    • Check out ideas42’s Giving Space about their research that focuses on volunteering and new ways of giving.

About this week’s guest

Sarah Welch

Sarah Welch

Vice President, ideas42

Sarah Welch is a Vice President at ideas42, where she helps lead behavioral innovations in two focus areas: improving the way donors at all levels give to charity, and tackling climate change. Prior to joining ideas42, Sarah completed a three-year dual degree program at Yale’s School of Management and School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where she focused on urban resource management and planning. In her past life, Sarah was an ecological designer restoring natural habitats in and around New York City. Sarah holds an MBA and an MEM from Yale and received her BA in Environmental Science & Public Policy from Harvard. She’d take cheese over cake any day. (Pronouns – she/her)

Connect with Sarah Welch