Episode 42: The Behavioral Science of Rallying Support in the Digital Age, with Sarah Welch
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?
Read the Transcript
[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
[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
[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 ideas42.org 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
[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?
About this week’s guest
Sarah WelchVice 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)
Episode 35: What Nonprofits Can Learn from IKEA to Increase Support & Impact, with Boris Kievsky
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 35
What Nonprofits Can Learn from IKEA to Increase Support & Impact, with Boris Kievsky
In this Episode:
Can asking your supporters for their help and input actually raise the amount they’re willing to support your nonprofit’s work?
There’s a phenomenon in psychology, studied and demonstrated by behavioral economists, in which people consider something they’ve taken part in creating to be worth more than the same thing made by a professional. This cognitive bias is called the IKEA Effect
In this episode, Boris discusses strategies for nonprofits to capitalize on the power of the IKEA Effect to form a stronger connection with supporters, increasing your perceived value and raising more money for your work.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:07.250] – 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!
[00:00:24.210] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Nonprofit Hero Factory. On today’s show, I’m going to dig into a cognitive bias — a known, seemingly illogical bit of human psychology — that nonprofits have to understand and take advantage of if they want to grow their community and their support base. Many are already doing it, are taking advantage of it without realizing it (including probably your organization one way or another) but they’re not using it nearly to its potential. And today, I really want to dive into all the ways that you can do that to maximize your support base and create more heroes for your cause.
[00:01:02.730] – Boris
Before I do, though, I’d like to tell a little story — and bear with me for a couple of minutes — because I promise, it is actually relevant to what we want to talk about. This weekend, as most people in the U.S. were celebrating Halloween, I attempted to assemble and hang an IKEA set of cabinets for the fourth time. It’s the KALLAX, if you guys are familiar with all the different IKEA ones, where you could configure it into different, kind of, arrangements of drawers and shelves with doors and knock doors.
[00:01:33.570] – Boris
And I’ve assembled dozens probably, by now, of pieces of IKEA furniture over the years. This one didn’t seemingly present a challenge either, to put together at least. I put the two KALLAX boxes together, and then it was time to attach the mounting rails on the wall. If you’re familiar with the system and relates, okay. If you’re not, I’m not trying to advertise IKEA here, but they have these special metal rails that you attach to the wall, and then you can just hang the cabinets onto the rails.
[00:02:04.710] – Boris
Easy enough in theory. Of course, good practice says you should find studs to drill into and to screw the mounting rails into. And I did try to find those… but this wall, as it turns out, doesn’t seem to have studs, at least not in the area that I wanted to hang. The wall is actually adjacent to the garage, so the other side of the wall is inside our garage, the outside is leading towards our den. And it’s a long wall where we wanted to have two, kind of, cabinets on the bottom with large doors and drawers; and then up top, we wanted to have hanging, these additional cabinets to put stuff away out of view. Because, you know, when you have three kids in the house, there’s always things everywhere, and you want to find ways to stow them nicely and hopefully in an organized fashion.
[00:02:51.510] – Boris
Anyway, maybe because it’s the other side of the garage door — the garage wall – but this wall was clearly built differently somehow, and there were no studs for me to screw into. So, I went back out to the hardware store and bought toggle bolts. Which when you push into a wall, there’s a little butterfly thing, or a plastic thing that you could pull back, and it really presses against the back of the wall, keeping anything from pulling through or ripping down. I bought the bolts, drilled the hole, and pushed the toggle bolt in… and hit the garage wall instead.
[00:03:27.990] – Boris
So, apparently there’s a gap between our den wall and the garage wall, and it’s not long enough for the toggle bolt to actually go in and be able to spring open. I tried a couple of different types of bolts, none of them worked. Go back to the hardware store again. This time I buy plastic anchors and metal anchors to screw into the drywall that will hopefully hold a lot of weight. They’re rated 75 pounds each, there’s four per cabinet, two cabinets, but each one would then, theoretically, be able to support 300 pounds —which we have no intention of actually testing — but, should do.
[00:04:08.010] – Boris
So I got those in, and using them, was able to attach the rails to the wall about an inch lower than the ceiling, or actually, where the cabinets would hang about an inch lower than the ceiling. I got the cabinets up with a little bit of heft and some assistance. I was able to actually get them onto the rails and then noticed something a little odd again. Whereas the back of the cabinet was about an inch down from the ceiling, the front of the cabinet was actually literally touching — pressed up against — the ceiling.
[00:04:46.230] – Boris
Now, this would not have necessarily been a problem. I could have let it go, if not for the fact that we want doors on these cabinets and the doors swing out. Which I tried, just to confirm, but makes them actually bump into the ceiling and can’t even open. So unless I’m willing to cut open a section of ceiling, which I’m not prepared to do, I had to think of something else. Either lower the cabinets— which might make them look even stranger, hanging off the wall lower down — or find a way to, kind of, make them vertically level.
[00:05:19.170] – Boris
So I wound up coming up with a solution, which was to use washers. I put washers in as spacers between the wall and the railing, in order to try to get it flush, level with the… Well, 90 degrees to the floor and ceiling, and so the top of the cabinets will be more parallel with the ceiling. That meant, of course, going back out to the hardware store, buying longer screws, buying all kinds of washers because oh yeah, of course, the wall is not consistent to itself. I need a different number of washers in different parts of the wall… quality construction I live in. And after multiple experiments, was actually able to get the rail up relatively straight, relatively vertically straight, and mount the cabinets onto it, in such a way that they were parallel to the ceiling, and parallel and lined up with each other.
[00:06:15.510] – Boris
And the final test… was I able to put the doors on? And voila, hallelujah, they finally opened. Now, you might listen to this story and either think, “why in the world, A) is he telling this story? But B) why didn’t he just call a professional, either to put them up in the first place or when it didn’t work the first time, call someone who knows how to do these things… a handyman, a carpenter, a drywall person, I don’t know. Somebody who actually understands the principles of these types of construction and can do it quicker and probably better in the long run?”
[00:06:52.950] – Boris
Or you might be thinking of a similar experience that you had. Whether it was like me, putting together some piece of IKEA and maybe having extra parts at the end. Or having a Lego set that was incredibly challenging to put together, like the one that one of my kids loves to do. And the interesting thing is that whatever you undertook, as long as you were able to complete it, you’re probably looking back on it with pride. As I do, now every time I walk through that room, basically to the den, I look at those cabinets and I think “there’s something that I was able to do, there’s something that I achieved”.
[00:07:34.230] – Boris
And it actually makes me value them more than if I’d had someone else assemble them and put them up. Which is a little bit odd, but luckily, this is not evidence that I’m crazy (nor is it evidence to the contrary, of course). But luckily for me, this is a phenomenon that has been studied and actually aptly named The IKEA Effect, and this is the cognitive bias that I want to focus on today.
[00:08:03.750] – Boris
A litte over ten years ago, behavioral economists Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely set out to examine this phenomenon that had actually been observed and used by marketers and companies, like IKEA, for decades. In their experiments, they had individuals who were not particularly skilled at assembling furniture or other tasks, to assemble IKEA furniture or build a Lego set that was complicated or fold origami for the first time. They were then asked how much they would pay for the resulting creation, the product of their efforts, and how much they would pay for the same item created by a professional.
[00:08:40.770] – Boris
So if you’ve got some work of origami that you created versus someone else created that is a professional that clearly looks better and more structured, more well-built, whatever it might be, in case of furniture. Overwhelmingly, the participants agreed to pay more — as much as 63% more — for the one that they created, even though their final product was not as well done as the professionally created one, and they were able to see that and admit it. Then they took people who were not part of the creation process and brought them in and asked them the same question about the value of the object. They were asked the value they would assign to someone, to an object, that was professionally assembled versus one that an amateur was assembling.
[00:09:30.750] – Boris
And guess what? They didn’t have the same bias, they preferred the professional one. It seemed to them worth more and more valuable. Well, this is perhaps a strange phenomenon, but if we think about it in a few different ways, we can actually understand it. And nonprofits can harness that same cognitive bias, as it’s called in behavioral science, to create stronger connections and raise more money. The fact is that once someone has participated, as the study shows, in the creation of something — and in your case, the furthering of your mission or the creation of a program — their personal narrative, their identity, expands to include that they are now someone who supports your cause.
[00:10:13.830] – Boris
And with that new identity, they’re more likely to keep supporting through volunteering, amplifying and donating, and raise their support level as they feel more invested and a stronger connection to the results. Positive changes that they want to see in the world. So the more you can make them a part of the process, the more you could involve them in helping you understand what people want and deliver on those things, the more they’re going to take ownership of it, the more — there’s another effect called The Endowment Effect — the more they’re going to endow your work with value and therefore feel it’s more valuable to support.
[00:10:54.450] – Boris
So here are a few ideas that I put together that will hopefully get you thinking about how you can capitalize on the power of the IKEA Effect to create more heroes for your cause. If you will, ways to engage your current and possible new supporters in the work that you’re doing and get them more and more invested in it. The first way is to simply offer more volunteer opportunities. Even in a time like a pandemic that we’re going through now, where not everybody is able to, or interested in, getting together to do something in person, to volunteer.
[00:11:27.630] – Boris
There are ways to get them to volunteer online, to do certain things on your behalf. It will somehow forward your mission. This is a good time to point out that next week, when we get back to our regular type of interview show, we’re going to have on the show Dana Litwin, who is a volunteer engagement expert and will be talking to us about some of the ways that we can activate more volunteers online to get them more connected with our work.
[00:11:56.010] – Boris
The second way is to create behind-the-curtain experiences. If you’ve ever gone to see a Broadway show or any kind of theater, really, and then gone backstage to see how it all works, there’s a certain level of mystery to it. But when you get back there, it doesn’t just go away. It’s not “oh, it’s a trick.” There are no illusions, per se. There are ways that we make things happen in theater and are actually fascinating to see. “Oh, wow. That’s how that puzzle came together. That’s how Mary Poppins was able to fly.” Right? Those are the behind-the-curtain experiences or meet the cast.
[00:12:31.230] – Boris
Well, in your world, you can invite them — physically or virtually — to see how their support is helping further the cause. Helping to create certain results in the world and let them participate in that feel-good moment of service delivery. There was an organization, it still exists — the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization — that I was a part of when I was in high school. And every year, they probably still do this, they have a Passover food drive where they will assemble care packages for folks who cannot go out and buy their own Passover goods, whether they are not able to leave their house or they can’t afford all of the different things that it takes to have a proper Seder, which is the celebratory meal on Passover.
[00:13:20.370] – Boris
So they would invite high school students, like myself and my friends, to come and put the packages together. And then for those of us that had cars, which in my last year of doing it I did, actually go out and drive these packages, deliver these packages to the folks who needed them. Let me tell you, that was an amazing experience that I will never forget. I still recall knocking on doors and elderly people opening the door and seeing this package and the gratitude in their eyes and in their voices was just so incredible for me to experience that, it probably laid a strong foundation for all the other volunteer work that I’ve done since then.
[00:14:04.230] – Boris
It is an incredibly powerful thing to be able to firsthand witness the accomplishment of a mission in some small way. Which, by the way, you could also do virtually. I didn’t have to necessarily go there to drive. If you are delivering goods like that, for example, maybe you can have a camera and have that moment captured on camera. When someone receives the benefit of a donation or some kind of support. Right? Then you could share that out with the people who helped make it happen.
[00:14:38.130] – Boris
The next thing that you could do is a variation on the behind-the-curtain experience, which is invite them to Town Halls. There, supporters can get an inside view and possibly the opportunity to play a part in anything, from the planning of a new program, to the direction of the entire organization. So if you think about your board, for example, they take part in a lot of the decision making and setting the direction for your organization.
[00:15:05.070] – Boris
They are also the most invested supporters for your cause and for your nonprofit. Well, what if you could offer, basically another level of that, to other supporters. To people who do care about the success of your mission. Maybe they’re part of the community, and you can poll them on what services they want, or how they want something delivered, or how something’s working for them, and let them then have that voice that gets incorporated. Now, the danger is, of course, ignoring them if you do ask for suggestions, because then they’ll feel disenfranchised. But this is essentially enfranchisement. Where you’re drawing them in, making them feel like part of the process and the solution. Again, more invested. They will be more likely to want to support it going forward.
[00:15:52.590] – Boris
The next idea is to help connect your supporters to beneficiaries. Now again, in the case of the deliveries that I was doing, it was a very direct experience where I could interact with one of the beneficiaries, and it doesn’t have to be that person-to-person. Although by the way, that could also be done online, where you could set up calls between beneficiaries and benefactors, where there could be some sort of interaction and some sort of personal connection.
[00:16:20.430] – Boris
There’s another organization that I volunteer with, where I get to work hands on with a beneficiary and see their transformation over time — which I can’t take full credit for, but I do feel a sense of pride in — and want to keep supporting. So whether it’s through in-person or indirect through digital means, connectivity, or just through great storytelling, where you could tell the story of the impact that my work or my support has been responsible for, in a way. Then you’re going to once again make me feel more invested in the work that you’re doing.
[00:16:59.070] – Boris
Similar to how every time I walk by the IKEA shelves or there’s a project in the basement where… required some creative plumbing after certain contractors left things, let’s just say, not done. It took me several trips to Home Depot, but I was able to get it done. And every time I go down to the basement, even though most people can’t see it, and to be honest, it’s crude and not pretty, I still feel a sense of pride and accomplishment every time I go down there. So connecting someone to the results of your work and in this case specifically to beneficiaries, forges a really strong bond and makes them want to keep supporting you and donating more.
[00:17:37.290] – Boris
The next one is to give people more agency. What do I mean by that? I like to say that good storytelling, especially on websites and in digital media in general, is a choose your own adventure. Not a linear novel or movie that you can’t touch. Similarly, when we’re talking about trying to engage our supporters, if we give them options of how they want to proceed on their hero’s journey with us and how they want to support the work that we’re doing, which might be, of course, asking them if they would prefer to volunteer or to donate or both.
[00:18:15.810] – Boris
And oftentimes we ask them to donate after they’ve volunteered and to volunteer after they’ve donated. Right? Both of those are, one can easily lead to, or trigger the other. So that’s one way to give them more agency. Another way is even when just asking for donations, which program do they want to support or which result do they want to see? One of the ways that you can really boost your donations is to just simply tie specific numbers, so $50, for example, to specific results. Like supply school supplies for an entire classroom of kids for a year, or a month, or whatever it might be. $50 might not be realistic for a whole year.
[00:18:59.890] – Boris
So if you can tie that, and then show me that my donation has had that impact. Hopefully even connect me in one way or another, and again, it doesn’t have to be direct one-to-one or in-person. It could just be through video or other types of content, storytelling. Connect me to the beneficiaries and the results that, the impact that it’s had on their lives. Well, now I feel like I decided what to do. I.E. Support this particular program or make this particular donation and it had this result, something that I could feel good about and creates reinforcement for me going forward.
[00:19:41.710] – Boris
The last one that I want to share today is, well, if you know me and this show, then I’m all about storytelling. And as I mentioned, the choose your own adventure stories. You have to tell the right kinds of stories, better. As much as possible, use stories to connect your supporters actions to visible, tangible (as much as possible), results in the world.
[00:20:04.210] – Boris
Tell them the stories of impact that their time, their money, their support, whatever way it came in helped make possible. And whatever you do, don’t say, “hey, we did this”. Don’t even just say, “we couldn’t have done it without you”. Be direct. Say, “you did this. You achieved this. You donated this and it created this result” as much as you possibly can. There is a caveat that I want to touch on real quick, which is, don’t ask for too much. Whether you’re creating a volunteer opportunity or you’re asking for a donation.
[00:20:37.870] – Boris
If you ask for too much and/or promise a result that won’t necessarily be achieved, then you’re going to have the opposite effect — the Disenfranchisement Effect — where I’m going to, let’s say I wasn’t able to put together those shelves and hang them, those cabinets. Then every time I walk by there, I’m going to feel like, “oh, this was a failure”. It’s a negative association with the entire process, with IKEA, with mounting things, with my house, whatever it might be. Right? All the opposite effects from what you want to have with your organization’s supporters.
[00:21:11.470] – Boris
So make sure that it’s a donor size problem or a volunteer size problem, that can be achieved. And then, of course, tell them how much their work was able to do, how much change it was able to create in the world. You don’t have to remember all of this and you don’t have to take extensive notes. Of course, we have show notes for everything that I’m talking about in this episode. I also have a blog post called The IKEA Effect on the dotOrg Strategy website that you could check out. Again, it’ll be linked in the show notes for this.
[00:21:46.270] – Boris
If you’re interested in learning more about how to incorporate behavioral science in your organization, in your work, I highly recommend that you check out Episode 19 with Dr. Beth Karlin, where we talked about several different cognitive biases and elements of behavioral science, psychology, behavioral economics that you can use and should be, at least, aware of in your communications and your work as an organization.
[00:22:13.870] – Boris
Be sure, of course, to check back next week where we’re going to have our interview with Dana Littwin, talking about the ways that you could do the first thing that I talked about today in terms of increasing supporter investment, which is more volunteer opportunities online during times of pandemic or all year round.
[00:22:32.590] – Boris
In the meantime, if you enjoyed this episode and I really hope you did, please be sure to subscribe to the show on YouTube or your favorite podcast app so you can know when new episodes come out and please leave a review on iTunes, so that more people can discover this program and we can help them activate more heroes for their cause as well. As always, thank you so much for all the work that you do to make the world a better place for all of us, and I look forward to seeing you again next week. Bye bye.
[00:23:02.410] – 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:
- Boris shares a recent personal example of the IKEA Effect. (1:12)
- Placing a higher value and attachment on items that someone has built themselves is known as the IKEA Effect. (7:45)
- Once someone has participated in the furthering of your mission, their narrative expands to include that they now support your cause. (9:56)
- Invite your supporters to participate in the feel-good moment of seeing how their support is helping further the cause. (12:30)
- It’s powerful to experience the accomplishment that comes from a mission being completed in some way. (14:04)
- An example of this being seeing someone receive a donation, whether it’s in-person or digitally through a camera.
- Allow your supporters to have a voice. Taking part in processes and solutions for your organization leads to greater investment. (14:45)
- Connecting someone to the results of their work creates a bond and leads to continued support and donations. (16:20)
- Provide supporters with options regarding how they want to proceed on their hero’s journey and how they want to support the work being done. (17:55)
- Connect your supporters’ actions to visible and tangible results in the world using stories about the impact that their time, money and support made possible. (19:55)
- Asking for too much or promising a result that is not likely to be achieved results in a negative effect. (20:37)
- Cognitive biases and elements of behavioral science, psychology, and behavioral economics you should be aware of as an organization are discussed in Episode 19 with Dr. Beth Karlin. (21:56)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Boris KievskyChief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy
Boris is an entrepreneur, recovering filmmaker, and relapsed geek. As the the Chief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy, Boris helps nonprofits harness the power of great stories amplified through the right technology to reach the right audiences, create meaningful connections, and activate the inner hero in each of them.
Episode 19: The Science of Creating Heroes for Nonprofits, with Dr. Beth Karlin
The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 19
The Science of Creating Heroes for Nonprofits, with Dr. Beth Karlin
In this Episode:
Over the last few decades, there has been a sea change in the way we understand human behavior and guide or sway people to making decisions and taking action. This wave of research—observation and experimentation—has come to be known as Behavioral Science. Dr. Beth Karlin created the See Change Institute and devoted her career to help organizations use this power for good.
In this episode, Beth joins Boris to discuss why and how organizations should apply the principles of behavioral science to their communications and campaigns. From messaging that increases action-taking, to fostering a sense of identity around your cause, we break down dozens of ideas and strategies to activate more heroes for your cause.
Read the Transcript
[00:00:18.610] – 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 word for all of us. Da-Ding!
[00:00:20.720] – Boris
Welcome back, everybody, to another episode of The Nonprofit Hero Factory. Thank you so much for joining us again this week. We’ve got a fantastic guest. This is a wonderful person and friend of mine who happens to be a brilliant scientist, behavioral scientist. Her name is Dr. Beth Karlin. I’m going to read her bio. She is the founder and CEO of the See Change Institute, the Research and Practice Institute devoted to studying and shaping behavior change for the greater good. Her current projects, focus on health, equity, media representation and community energy programs.
[00:00:54.920] – Boris
Beth earned her B.A. in Psychology, Master’s in Public Policy and a Ph.D. in Social Ecology with an emphasis in social psychology. She probably lives in Los Angeles without a car. Beth describes her superpower as applying behavioral science, insights and methods to understand, measure and influence behavior. And with that, let’s welcome Beth onto the show.
[00:01:16.310] – Boris
[00:01:17.750] – Beth Karlin
Good to see you, Boris.
[00:01:19.370] – Boris
Great to see you this morning. Thanks so much for getting up so early in Los Angeles to do this with me today. So I read your impressive bio. Could you please share your story with us a little bit?
[00:01:31.100] – Beth Karlin
Sure. I actually started my career right after college in nonprofits. I worked at a volunteer center and I spent the next decade in education and I love the work I was doing. I ended up, after about eight years as a high school activities director, and I started to realize that I could have as much influence on young people and my students outside of the classroom as in. So I started thinking a lot about the power of culture to influence people.
[00:01:56.570] – Beth Karlin
And I just found myself making balloon arches during the day and then reading The New York Times about climate change on the weekend and just said, I want to go to there. I realized that, I mean, my undergraduate was in psychology and I always studied psychology, but I realized that culture matters and that understanding and influencing people to take action for huge issues like genocide and social justice and climate change could be done through behavioral science. So I went back to school and got a PhD.
[00:02:24.320] – Beth Karlin
I did my dissertation work primarily on residential energy efficiency, which sounds super boring, but it’s really trying to understand how the information ecosystem within our homes could help us improve our behavior. And then on the side, I started studying media. I worked with organizations like Story of Stuff Project and Invisible Children. And then afterwards, after a brief stint in government and academia, I started teaching so that I could just keep doing this work with nonprofits and government organizations without having to worry about the overhead or that red tape of the government or a university to do so.
[00:02:59.930] – Boris
That’s so awesome, Beth, I know you’ve worked with a lot of great organizations doing some really amazing and impactful work, I think, especially in the long run as it ripples throughout other areas. Let’s take a half-step back real quick. And for those that might not know, might not be geeks like me, for example, what is behavioral science? How would you define it?
[00:03:21.380] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, so behavioral science, it’s kind of the cooler, newer nomenclature for what it used to be called social science when we were younger.
[00:03:30.050] – Beth Karlin
But behavioral science is really the empirical study of human behavior. Human behavior and its influences as well as its causes. So behavioral science broadly encompasses the fields of psychology, sociology, political science, education, behavioral economics and informatics and human factors, and probably a few more that I missed. But really anything, any study that’s looking at how do we behave, what influences that and what can we do about it?
[00:04:00.170] – Boris
That’s a great definition. And so as part of that, there are two sides to it, right? There’s the theory and the methods.
[00:04:07.130] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, the way I think about, and my training, as you said, is kind of broadly interdisciplinary. It’s in something called social ecology. But if you think about any discipline, whether that’s biology, ecology, psychology, any discipline has kind of two things. One is the level of analysis that it studies. So kind of the theory that encompasses it about what matters. And the other are the methods that are used to solve it. So if you think, if you’re studying a pond, right, a hydrologist would study the water, a geologist, the rocks, a biologist, the fish and ecologist studies the pond.
[00:04:44.000] – Beth Karlin
Similarly, any discipline and science always has kind of theories or ideas about what matters and how independent variables affect dependent variables and then methods that are used and every behavioral science discipline might use different methods from qualitative research into experimentation, conjoint analysis, things like that.
[00:05:03.290] – Boris
So you’ve done a lot of work, I know, with nonprofits, and I was excited to actually work with you on one project. How can, do or should nonprofits be considering and incorporating behavioral science into their work and their communications? What aspects of it really apply?
[00:05:22.040] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, kind of following what we were just talking about. If you think about these two sides, theory and methods, one, the first is applying behavioral insights into your work. There’s a lot of things that we’ve learned collectively over the past decades, centuries. If you go back into philosophy before they were actually calling it science, a lot of the ideas about what it means to be happy and why we care and virtue date back to Aristotle.
[00:05:49.220] – Beth Karlin
But if we look more recently into published annals of literature, you can look at what’s worked. So if you’re trying to send out an annual donor letter and increase the number of people that participate, there’s research on that. There are insights on how people respond to gain and loss, how people respond to information, how people respond to color, to normative information about what others are doing. So applying behavioral insights into your work, there’s significant evidence.
[00:06:14.750] – Beth Karlin
There’s some of the work I did I spent, as I said, a brief stint in government participating with the social and behavioral sciences team in the White House. And a lot of that work was applying behavioral insights into different governmental programs with the hope of increasing participation rates and improving outcomes.
[00:06:30.140] – Beth Karlin
And then the second side of it are methods. So you can apply these insights, you can go, “oh, I heard this thing that if you do X, it will lead to Y,” but test. So there’s this idea of trust and verify, right? There’s this old adage, “only half of marketing works; we don’t know which half.” That’s lazy. You can test. Right?
[00:06:47.780] – Beth Karlin
So you can apply behavioral insights and then make sure that you’re going in place and test it, testing. Also, the other goal is customizing. While there are kind of broad insights and broad ideas about how humans behave, every different area, region, behavioral context is different. And so understanding the unique attributes of the community that you’re reaching and the problem that you are trying to solve will help you apply those insights more effectively.
[00:07:17.080] – Boris
So how can… can you give us an example of how a nonprofit might use behavioral science in some of their campaigns or some of their even grant applications? How does it factor in?
[00:07:30.640] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, so, I mean, one of the things that I’ve done a lot of research studying is social norms. So, for example, we found when I was in graduate school, a couple of my colleagues, we put out, we had done a conference and we’re just trying to improve literally the number of people that filled out the conference survey after we all have that problem, right? Any of us who put on events. And we put in we added one letter, one sentence into the letter that said in the email that went out that had been going out for years, that said, “dear person, thank you for coming to the conference. Please fill out the survey.” And we said, “join 70 percent of people who fill out this,” “join people, the other people who are filling out the survey.” And we saw a statistically significant of five to eight percent bump in the percentage of people that were filling out this conference survey. That finding has been replicated so many times. Actually, one of the original behavioral insights team studies in England that they brought over to the US when we launched it here, was looking at adding that same kind of sentence into the letter that the IRS sends to people who pay their taxes. It works there.
[00:08:33.460] – Beth Karlin
There was a company called OPOWER that was founded on the fact that sending that normative information, if you’ve ever received a bill from your energy utility that tells you how much you’re using compared to your neighbors, that was started by somebody who had read behavioral science research that was published right here in California showing that learning how much energy or water your neighbors used influence your behavior. That company, OPOWER, after about a decade was sold to Oracle for five hundred and sixty five million dollars.
[00:08:58.300] – Beth Karlin
So the power of this to to save enough energy in homes that you can value a company at that amount. And there’s other things on the report. But that was really the core principle. So you can do things like that. Also looking at some of the research we did in those some of those same reports, those same energy reports, we started studying imagery. So we found—this finding has been replicated in other places—that if you replace a photo without people, most of those reports had photos of like… water heaters and light bulbs, and if you put people in the photos, it increased people’s likelihood to click on the information and to take action and increased their likelihood to engage.
[00:09:38.330] – Beth Karlin
Also, if you are doing donors, this is research that Paul Slovic conducted going back and others going back a few decades called “Compassion Collapse.” That if you are trying to get people to donate to support a cause that affects people showing actually one person is more effective than showing a group of people.
[00:09:55.550] – Beth Karlin
So those are just a few. But there’s a ton of behavioral insights that if you apply and when you taken together, if you’re getting a percent increase here and a percent here and two percent here, you can see how those add up to really huge increases in the response to any of your campaigns.
[00:10:10.220] – Boris
And this is why I’m such a huge fan of the type of work that you do in behavioral economics and behavioral sciences as a broad subject because it directly affects user experience and story. It’s the story that we’re telling. It’s the way that we present certain stories and how we frame it so that people respond in a way that they might not if we didn’t use some of these tools and concepts. So it really gets into our core, the core of our psychology and social norms and triggers for us to then activate the good that we want people to to take.
[00:10:43.670] – Boris
I remember a similar study to the one that you’re talking about where and this is being done to this day. They they put cards in bathrooms, in hotels. You remember that one about trying to get people to stop just throwing their towels on the floor every single day?
[00:10:58.880] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, That was Noah Goldstein and Vladas Griskevicius ran the initial study on that.
[00:11:02.840] – Boris
And similarly, it was this not quite peer pressure, what do you call it? The desire to be like other people who were staying in that same room before you. So just by saying, “the previous people who stayed in this room used the same towels for…” I think they said two or three days or something, that sentence, crucially, just changed everything in terms of how often people would have their laundry done.
[00:11:28.100] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, and that was really interesting because actually saying people who stayed in this room was more effective than people who stay in this hotel. So it’s just this like this desire for consistency. We desire consistency with our past behavior and with others around us. And, yeah, that’s been found in so many different domains.
[00:11:43.880] – Beth Karlin
And I think what you said, the story really matters. And and that’s why it’s important that we don’t just, that you understand the context of your audience and your nonprofit and your brand, because if you just apply these because your brand, your nonprofit has its own story and so you have to remain consistent.
[00:12:00.170] – Beth Karlin
One of the studies, and I love when something I do fails as much as when it succeeds, because that’s when learning happens. We applied some huge body of work on personalization and the importance of personalization and kind of creating a relationship, and we worked with a major utility and we worked on a really more personal, casual, friendly, like trying to really build rapport letter as a welcome program. And we attenuated effectiveness with some of the changes we made.
[00:12:25.920] – Beth Karlin
And what we realized, and we followed up and did some qualitative research and reached out to people would receive them—a small sample of people like 10 or 20, you don’t have to spend a lot of money doing this—and we found that… and I got some of the ideas for the language in there from work I had done with Invisible Children, who had huge, great response rates to their messaging and had this fun brand where they they had I remember them. I did my first survey.
[00:12:49.110] – Beth Karlin
They rewrote the survey invites and I was like, I know how to read a survey and they just made it cute. They made it on brand for them. They were like, we love you, you love us. Tell us about it. Ten minutes, easy, breezy. Right? And I was like, kind of cheesy, but it worked, right? They got this huge response rate that email literally got… somebody screenshotted it and posted it on The Invisible Children Facebook was like “easy, breezy, Ben Keesey, anything for you.”
[00:13:13.020] – Beth Karlin
So I tried to apply these insights thinking, like, this is there’s a huge body of work on this. It worked here. But what I found when we talked to people was it didn’t match the brand, that messaging didn’t match the story of that energy utility. People don’t want their energy utility to say “easy breezy” because that’s not the brand. That’s not the narrative. That’s not the relationship you have.
[00:13:32.790] – Beth Karlin
So it’s really important that you can pull these insights, but really think about what is authentic for you. And that’s why that idea of thinking about story and thinking about relationship matters. And that’s where I caution against just like writ large applying behavioral economics insights, is that you really need to take caution and think about who you are and what relationship you have. And if you don’t like it, if you want to be more fun, then you’re going to need to spend a couple of years building that and kind of changing your brand, changing the story of who you are and how you relate to people until you get to the point where you can start saying easy breezy.
[00:14:07.860] – Boris
Because there are definitely some companies I know in the great large industries that do exactly that. They they go counter the norms and attract people who are like, “Oh, this is so much more personal. It’s so much more interesting.” There’re insurance companies, health insurance companies that do that, that say, “Oh, we’re not like some big random organization out there somewhere. We’re just people and we want to have interactions with you and be sure that you are doing well.” And it is really effective. But I really like, what you’re talking about personalizing, because even if you have your brand voice, you don’t have to talk to everybody the same way, nor should you. And so can you talk a little bit more about not applying one overall strategy or approach to everybody that you’re trying to speak to?
[00:14:57.570] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, so kind of persona or segmentation and just to that point. So those companies I’m a member of, one of those health insurance companies.
[00:15:05.262] – Boris
[00:15:05.010] – Beth Karlin
I have Oscar. I love Oscar. I love that. Like they sent me Band-Aids and I forgot about it. I just put them in my in my medicine cabinet. And then I hurt myself and I took out the Band-Aid. I opened it and it was like super cute and said, “Charlie bit me.”
[00:15:19.860] – Beth Karlin
And it literally made me laugh out loud. I loved it. Also, that attracts—so the thing in a competitive marketplace, Oscar is attracting people like us who love that brand. Right? So there’s so there’s kind of a fit there. Right? Like people are finding themselves with Rocket for their mortgages and Lemonade and Oscar and going to Zappos to buy shoes because they’re attracted to that. So there’s a little bit of a reciprocation there. Right, because they’re drawing in people who want that.
[00:15:44.340] – Beth Karlin
So you will find that when you put your brand out there, you’re telling the world who you want to work with you. So Oscar knows straight out they’re not getting as many people that maybe want a little more staid, buttoned up type of health care company. There are people who think that that is not what a health care company should sound and look like. Right? So, when you really put your brand out front and center, you’re going to start getting the segments, the customer, the market segments that are attracted to you.
[00:16:09.450] – Beth Karlin
That’s kind of the thousand true fans methodology. That said, once you have customers and or what would you call for nonprofits?
[00:16:18.760] – Boris
[00:16:19.860] – Beth Karlin
Beneficiaries. Thank you so much, Boris. You might still want to segment them. Also, you may be serving really wide groups. So I work now with Medicaid providers and they do serve a large number of different audiences.
[00:16:32.850] – Beth Karlin
And so you might, it’s really important to look and say what are the commonalities and differences? And can I further customize and personalize to different groups? And that’s often called audience segmentation. And there’s different ways to do it.
[00:16:44.370] – Beth Karlin
You can—design thinking, says you kind of go in a room and like, think about who you think your different audiences are. I’m a scientist, so I’m going to say, again, trust, try that, and verify. I think the best way to do that is inductively, not deductively. So you collect data, run a survey and then look, how you can work with somebody to statistically analyze how people fall into groups on their own. What you’ll often find, is that people are not being grouped as much by demographics. You might not have, like, older women and younger men. You might have people who really crave certainty or people who are really focused on security or people who are working from home or people who travel on the weekends. And it depends on what your industry is. Right? I do a lot of work and energy. And so we find that people cluster based on their lifestyle and how much they… how much time they spend in or out of the house, whether they have children…
[00:17:37.590] – Beth Karlin
And some of that will follow along demographic lines, but it doesn’t have to. And the power right now of the Internet and of all the information we have is that we don’t have to rely on those old segments. So if you think about media, for example, when we were thinking about, if somebody was marketing for a Jimmy Buffett concert 30 years ago, the main thing you would think the best predictor of being a Jimmy Buffett fan was whether you were a man maybe between 50 and 65 in a southern Atlantic state.
[00:18:06.120] – Beth Karlin
But now we don’t have to think that. We can go… we can go, the best predictor of a Jimmy Buffett fan is someone who likes Jimmy Buffett on Facebook. And the second best predictor is someone who’s been tagged in a photo with somebody who like Jimmy Buffett on Facebook in the last six months. Because our Facebook friends don’t actually predict our behavior but the people we’re tagged in photos our real life friends, do. So you can start looking for newer ways.
[00:18:26.760] – Beth Karlin
You don’t have to think about just grouping people, because not only is that less effective than it could be, but in this day and age, it’s a little it’s a little off tone. Right? We don’t want to be putting people into socio-demographic buckets and saying this is what old people and young people and white people and black people think. So if we can find even new ways with interests and values in order to group people, you’ll be even more effective.
[00:18:48.500] – Boris
So let’s dig a little bit deeper, actually, now that you brought that up. When it comes to being a Jimmy Buffett fan, at some point, does that become part of one’s identity? How do we focus on people’s identities and getting them to self-identify, if you will, with our causes using the techniques that you study and implement?
[00:19:12.110] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, identity is huge. Right. Identity is a really powerful thing. And the thing is, we all have multiple identities. So what you’re trying to do is often prime… prime an identity. Right? So that it feels self-salient to the person. So if you ask me, Beth, what’s your identity? At any given time, I might be focused really strongly. Right now, I feel really strongly. My identity is a behavioral scientist because you’re interviewing me as one, right?
[00:19:41.970] – Beth Karlin
But I participate in a nonprofit organization called Reboot that’s for Jewish people. And so my identity, I’m very much Jewish in that environment. There’s other environments where I feel very much like a woman or a voter, or I might identify really strongly with my politics or a blood donor. And so one way is just to literally prime and push identity. So research has shown, for example, with voting appeals that if you ask people, “will you be a voter tomorrow?” As opposed to people—they had 11 percent increase in getting people out to the polls—over a message that said, “will you vote tomorrow?”
[00:20:17.900] – Beth Karlin
And the latter, will you vote tomorrow? Actually, grammatically, it just sounds much cleaner to me and tighter. I’d much rather say, will you vote tomorrow, or maybe come out and join us and vote, or join—that’s why social norms also work. “Join the 80 percent of people in your precinct who voted last election.” Right? But just “be a voter” is another way so you can prime social norms by saying there’s a group of people that do this.
[00:20:39.770] – Beth Karlin
And we see a lot… there were a lot of issues in the past couple of decades around messaging strategies that did the exact opposite. If you look at some of the youth drinking—and it’s really turned a corner—you used to get the message when you were a young person that everyone else was drinking and it was horrible and you shouldn’t. And if you notice, the messaging has changed. It’s “not every kid drinks.” So there’s this identity out there that is positive, that’s not drinking in college, right?
[00:21:06.200] – Beth Karlin
It’s not just focused on… we often think that we think and we think that the best messaging strategy to somebody that is one that really focuses on outcomes. Right? Because we’d all like to think that we’re like Mr. Spock, which is like measuring, carefully calculating what’s best for us and what’s best for the community. But we’re much more like Captain Kirk. We’re just rash and brash and we care about what we look like. So really, anything that you can do to make the behavior observable, to make it salient, to make people think that others are doing it, to make people think that others approve and not make them think—
[00:21:39.440] – Beth Karlin
This is important because I’m starting to sound manipulative. You have to use real data. Right. So for a behavior, for example, like—and this is research that Gregg Sparkman’s been doing at Stanford and now at Princeton—for a behavior that’s not yet normative, like, for example, being a vegetarian, you can’t say “join 80 percent of vegetarians.” So you can’t communicate a social norm that says this is a big identity. What you can do instead is communicate what’s called the dynamic norm to say more and more people are giving up meat, more people are eating or are going participating in Meatless Monday.
[00:22:11.270] – Beth Karlin
So you can talk about how something’s trending or shifting. And then again, the most easily you can just say be a voter, be a blood donor, be one of us. And that means thinking about what is the identity that are affiliating your supporter with. Right? What is their identity? What is a hero for your nonprofit look like? Who are they? Is it be a proud progressive? Is it be a voter? Is it be somebody who cares about…? Is it be a champion for charter schools in Delaware? Right? Like figure out what that identity is. What is that hero? What is that persona? And then do what you can to kind of craft that and then you’ll find those people. They’ll come to you and then you reinforce it. You reinforce it to them individually. And you reinforce it to them collectively. “You’re a part of a group of people that do this.” And that will start to kind of become a positive, virtuous cycle.
[00:23:05.090] – Boris
So I love all of this stuff, but I want to take it a half step back, because not everybody is going to instantly identify themselves as a voter, or decide that they want to be and now are a vegetarian or something along those lines. But there is the foot-in-door phenomenon where we could try to get them to self identify on a smaller scale and then slowly bring them up further. Am I think the right thing with Robert Cialdini’s work?
[00:23:32.570] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, yeah. There’s kind of. Yeah. Laddering, or the foot-in-the-door effect. Yeah, you can. So if you ask people to do a small behavior and then you come back and ask them to do a larger behavior, they’re often more likely to do that. There’s also kind of a door-in-face where you can come in with a really big appeal. And when somebody says no, you can ask them to compromise. Ironically, both of those can be effective again under certain circumstances.
[00:23:57.020] – Beth Karlin
Yeah. So, I mean, you can you can try and ladder or build. I think often there’s there’s a saying I learned back from way before I went back to school, which was like “participation precedes donation.” So one of the best things you can do in terms of an initial behavior is ask people for their thoughts, for their advice. People love giving advice. We love being smarter than each other. Right? So you can just engage people and say, you know, “what do you think matters in education? What do you care about?” And then from something they said, we really have this desire, as I talked about, for consistency. So if you get somebody to talk about caring about something, you might be more likely to get them to do something. I would also just say—just caution that, your cause, no matter what it is, isn’t for everyone. So you’re better off building a base.
[00:24:45.350] – Beth Karlin
I really, when I was in graduate school, as I said, I was really focused on climate change. And I started getting really interested in climate deniers because it just “What?” “Why?” “Who?” “Grrrr! What can I do about it?” And then I was in social movements class and and I think it was my social movements professor said in class, like Martin Luther King, to our knowledge, historically never addressed publicly the KKK. He never spoke at KKK meetings. He didn’t go after that group. He built a base. And so I think you need to focus on, like, you know, think about concentric circles.
[00:25:26.280] – Beth Karlin
Right. So there are some people that, like are not worth your time going after even for that starting behavior. So really figure out like, who those concentric circles are, who—I hate “low hanging fruit,” but there’s this idea of like don’t preach to the choir. But the choir is not meant to be preached to. I’ve never understood that. The choir is like on the stage singing to your congregation. Like train the choir. Right?
[00:25:52.360] – Beth Karlin
So you can get so you can again start getting people to communicate with each other and then, yes, train them with behaviors. There’s just again, behavioral science is really messy. There is a risk with that laddering or foot in the door called moral licensing. That there’s a phenomena that we can do one good thing—that when we do one positive action, we kind of pat ourselves on the back. We are morally licensed and we’re less likely to do another.
[00:26:20.140] – Beth Karlin
So this is where it’s kind of hard because there is significant evidence that foot in the door, that laddering works and there’s an equal body of work that says you might get somebody to go, “Oh, cool, I already helped your nonprofit, buh-bye! I’m going to go eat ice cream now.”
[00:26:37.780] – Beth Karlin
And so you want to be careful at how you do that and you want to reinforce and build reinforcement. And the way to do it is not just incentivize but to build identity. So with everything they do, connect them to you, build something that connects them to you.
[00:26:51.090] – Boris
Beth, this has turned into a fantastic master class. Thank you so much. The…what you were saying before about you can’t please everyone. You can’t go after everyone. You don’t need to go after the climate deniers. In my mind, basically to to reduce it really simply, “haters gonna hate.” And you don’t need to try to convince the haters to start loving. You can actually even use the fact that there are so many haters out there to recruit more people to your cause because you need masses to counterbalance the masses out there.
[00:27:24.510] – Boris
I don’t want to monopolize too much of your time this morning. I really appreciate it. But we’re talking around behavior. And I really want to get to B.J. Fogg’s behavioral model, the B=MAP. How do we get people to take actions? Because ultimately, whether or not a nonprofit succeeds, depends on people stepping up, becoming heroes, as we like to call them, and taking actions that further the mission of the organization. Hopefully further the mission that they feel an affinity for towards themselves. But how do we apply this B=MAP towards getting people to do more good?
[00:28:03.760] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, so B.J.’s a psychologist at Stanford, and he’s put out a number of different, really great theories. And one of them is this framework that says behavior equals motivation, times ability, times a prompt. And it’s a simple model. I don’t think it includes everything that you could possibly manipulate or use. But what he’s talking about is, is that to get somebody to act, they have to be motivated in some way, which is largely true, although it is really possible to get people to take actions without being strongly motivated if there are corollary motivations or if you just make it easy for them. “Easy, popular and fun.” As another behavioral scientist, Ed Maibach at George Mason says, just make it easy, popular and fun. And those are that’s kind of his model, which also has a lot of empirical evidence. And they’ve done a lot of great work.
[00:29:00.010] – Beth Karlin
But B.J. talks about: Motivation, make sure that they’re motivated in some way to engage in the behavior. Ability, that relates to, kind of, self efficacy that they have, that they feel that they are able to engage in that behavior. And I think self efficacy is really interesting. People think of it as kind of a univariate construct, but you can think of ability or self efficacy in terms of two things. One is behavioral efficacy and the other is response. And I think that really, really, really, really, really matters for nonprofits. So behavioral efficacy is, “can I do it?” And response efficacy is, “will it matter?” And what we see in terms of like addressing pressing social issues is if we just think ability means something that you can do, people can vote.
[00:29:41.050] – Beth Karlin
A lot of young people weren’t voting for decades, not because they didn’t know how, because they didn’t think voting mattered. So when you think about ability, it’s not just identifying a behavior they can do and making it easy for them. But it’s making sure that they believe that that action will make a difference either individually or collectively.
[00:29:54.700] – Beth Karlin
And then, prompt just means getting in on their radar. So BJ’s model, the BMAP model, really is focused on building daily tiny habits, on getting people to, like, run, floss, eat better. And you might have a nonprofit that’s focused on that if you’re looking at people kind of getting engaged politically. I think it is also it’s also important to look at like easy, fun and popular. That those things really matter as well and like building that kind of social framework around your cause.
[00:30:26.380] – Beth Karlin
But when it comes to just getting somebody or yourself just to meditate in the morning, having that prompt or brush your teeth or whatever, floss your teeth, let’s say we already brush, floss your teeth, whatever those habits are, building habits is making sure that there’s a motivation there and that it’s intrinsic as intrinsic as possible, the ability that you know what you need to do and what the outcome will be if you continue doing it. And then that prompt or trigger, whether that prompt is like, something that’s external, like an alarm that comes into you, or it’s going to floss after I brush my teeth. The other thing he says is try and find like you were talking about, one tiny thing that you can do. So instead of saying I’m going to floss twice a day, you can say I’m going to floss one tooth. And then the thing is, once you pull the floss out and stick it in your mouth and you floss a tooth, kind of feels wasteful just to throw the floss away. Right?
[00:31:17.590] – Beth Karlin
So instead of running, it’s “I’m going to put my shoes on and leave the house.” So finding that way to find your own foot in the door so that you’ll start doing more and more.
[00:31:26.930] – Boris
And I think that model can actually be applied even broader beyond just like physical actions in the physical world, even on a donation page, using that kind of system where you inspire people, you help them feel motivated, you help them see that they have the ability to affect change. You make it very simple for them you remove all kinds of friction, also within the realm of ability. And then you give them a clear prompt, which is that call to action, which uses some of the verbiage that you were talking about earlier, the kind of language of inclusivity and we could all do this together. And you can, specifically, “you can make a difference.” I think just that framework tells a great story that works for taking small actions or large actions towards a common good.
[00:32:09.820] – Beth Karlin
[00:32:11.200] – Boris
So I don’t want to run too much over here, but I would love to just ask you, we talked about B.J. Fogg’s book. We mentioned Robert Cialdini. Where should nonprofits start if they haven’t started thinking about applying behavioral science to their own organizations?
[00:32:31.590] – Beth Karlin
My gosh, we’re we’re in a huge kind of push behavioral science renaissance right now, there are so many resources, Katy Milkman’s book just came out this year, some of my favorites are Nudge, which was written—so there are three times in the history of economic psychologists have won the Nobel. The first was Herbert Simon, which was several decades ago about work. The second was Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman has a book, it is thick, called Thinking Fast and Slow, but it is like the best primer to just how our brain works.
[00:33:08.980] – Beth Karlin
It’s not going to give you tips and tricks and tactics as much. It does a little bit, but it really gives you the foundation. And then the third group, the third pair were Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, for their body of work. But kind of the book that encapsulates that is called Nudge. Those are great places to start. Robert Cialdini, his most popular book, came out in the nineteen eighties called Influence that, unlike Thinking Fast, and Slow, is skinny and red and cute and easy read.
[00:33:38.620] – Beth Karlin
But there are tons of great podcasts. This is one of them. These days, Freakonomics, which is another book that talks about some of these ideas. They have a great podcast. There’s tons of resources.
[00:33:50.470] – Boris
Katy’s Podcast, Choiceology.
[00:33:52.090] – Beth Karlin
Yeah. Yeah. So there’s I mean, there really are a lot of resources and there are a lot of behavioral scientists that’re out there. So I would say try and reach out if you can. The best thing is, because like I said, applying these things requires an understanding of what’s called mediation and moderation. Which is, how does it work and for whom does it work? So if you can find a professor or a grad student, doctoral students are always looking for real-world, would love doing applied research.
[00:34:18.430] – Beth Karlin
I find that more and more and more my phone is ringing constantly. When I was in grad school and I said I wanted to do applied work, people thought I was crazy. Now there are more and more students interested in it and wanting to really get applied research experience because when they go out, there are more and more jobs. I just—one of my one of my graduate, the graduate student at See Change—just left us for the summer to spend the summer at Weight Watchers as an intern.
[00:34:42.610] – Beth Karlin
Almost every major corporation has behavioral science units. Now, Google has it. Facebook has it, Intuit has it. Right. And so so they’re looking for experience. So if you can, there are great books. There are great resources, but really meet a behavioral scientist. We’re really nice people and we want to do good. You will not only let them help you, but you’ll also be helping advance science. Because every time we can work with a nonprofit to apply real-world data as opposed to studying college students, it actually improves science. You’ll be helping other nonprofits after you, as well. So that’s my suggestion and plug.
[00:35:14.970] – Boris
Awesome. I really appreciate that. On the practical side, also, there are several things that you recommended throughout this interview today, including segmentation, including trying to figure out—testing—certain things and variables in your messaging and in your work in general that I think nonprofits should be looking at as well. We’re going to link to all of the books and other resources that you mentioned. If you know any others, drop them and we will add them to our show notes as well.
[00:35:43.120] – Boris
If viewers want to follow up with you specifically and with See Change, how can they do that?
[00:35:48.760] – Beth Karlin
Yeah, just visit our website, seechangeinstitute.com. You can drop me a line from there or you can email me directly, I’m firstname.lastname@example.org. Yeah. And I would love—I will take a consult that somebody sends me a message I am sent on LinkedIn, and say you have a question or you want to meet. I will send you a link to a thirty-minute consult and I’m happy to talk with people. I believe so deeply…
[00:36:14.860] – Beth Karlin
Like I said, I started my career in nonprofit. And I got my PhD because I thought that behavioral science could help nonprofits do the work that we do in the world, and that you do in the world better. So feel free to reach out, no strings attached. I would love to spend a half an hour with you.
[00:36:28.720] – Boris
I love that. And as someone who has picked Beth’s brain many, many times over the course of the years that we’ve been friends, I can tell you in thirty minutes, much like this interview, you’re going to get a whole lot of value from someone like her. So thank you so much Beth, for joining us today. And thank you everybody who tuned in to watch, to listen. If you liked it, please do leave us a review, give us a rating, subscribe, spread the word.
[00:36:51.100] – Boris
We want to help as many nonprofits as possible. That’s why Beth and I got into doing this type of work. Thank you, everybody. Have a great day.
[00:37:19.660] – 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:
- Behavioral Science is the empirical study of human behavior. It is any study that looks at how we behave, what influences that and what we can do about it. There are two parts to any science: Theory and Methods. (3:30)
- For nonprofits, application starts with incorporating behavioral insights into your work. Understanding what we’ve learned about human behavior, user experience and storytelling, and building that into your communications will take you a long way. (5:25)
- When it comes to people, there is no universal messaging that will resonate with everyone. That’s why the second step is to use behavioral science methodology, which is all about experimentation and refinement. (6:30)
- There are a lot of behavioral insights that can lead to improvements. When taken together, even the smallest improvements can add up to huge increases in response to your campaigns. (9:55)
- Story really matters, as does the way we tell it. That is why it’s important that we understand and speak to the audience’s context, along with our nonprofit and brand voice. Consistency and authenticity are key. (11:43)
- Your brand’s voice / the way you communicate your story speaks to the people you are looking to attract. It may attract some while repelling others, and that’s ok. (13:13)
- Knowing the commonalities and differences of your audience and customizing and personalizing to the different groups within your base (i.e., audience segmentation) increases the resonance and efficacy of your messaging. (16:40)
- Identity is a very powerful thing. In fact, we all have multiple identities that we switch between depending on context. Having people see their affiliation with your work as part of their identity is the difference between liking what you do and feeling like a hero for your cause. We can prime and push identity by phrasing our calls to action in terms of identity rather than just asking for action. (19:12)
- One of the best things you can do is ask people for their thoughts and advice. People love giving advice and they love to feel part of the process, not just someone being asked for time or money. “Participation Precedes Donation.” (23:33)
- Build behavioral reinforcements into your messaging. (26:37)
- The Fogg Behavioral Model (Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt) is a framework for increasing the behaviors you want your heroes to perform and habits you want to instill. (27:24)
Action Steps: What Now?
About this week’s guest
Dr. Beth KarlinFounder and CEO of See Change Institute
Dr. Beth Karlin is the Founder and CEO of the See Change Institute, a research (and practice) institute devoted to studying and shaping behavior change for the greater good. Her current projects focus on health equity, media representation, and community energy programs. Beth earned her BA in Psychology, Masters in Public Policy, and Ph.D. in Social Ecology with an emphasis in Social Psychology. She proudly lives in Los Angeles without a car.