Why innovation is not enough: a look behind the curtain

behind the curtain

In an article written on 11/14/14 for New York Times Magazine by Ian McGugan entitled “The Ice-Bucket Racket”, the author tries to explain why the ALS Ice-Bucket challenge worked so well while other innovative appeals have not.  The article goes on to explain several scientific studies.  The upshot of them was that people have been shown to be charitable with a strong sense of empathy.  It also points out because we are aware of this tendency within us, we tend to erect barriers to insulate ourselves for being taken advantage of.  The article talks about an experiment using the familiar Red Kettle holiday drive by the Salvation Army.  Experimenters planted volunteers at a combination of one or both main entrances of a store in Boston.  One volunteer simply stood quietly by the kettle and rang a bell.  The other made direct eye-contact with the shoppers and asked each to “please give today.”  The effect was interesting.  As these combinations were tested in different pairings, two things became clear: When faced with fundraisers at both entrances, many people sought a third, service entrance to exit the store and the solicitor who made eye-contact was 60% more successful than their silent, bell-ringing counterpart.

Ok, so people are generous, insulated against asks, but give more often when a personal connection is made.  What does any of this have to do with the success of fundraising efforts?  McGugan’s article shows several other elements that psychologists have said led to success. The ice-bucket challenge, though about ALS, did little to remind donors of the disease.  By doing this, it prevents the natural avoidance measures we seem to have built up.  It also has a 24 hour time-frame that appeals to the human desire to accomplish projects.  Though fundraisers and researchers are dissecting this idea looking for the secret, in truth, there may not be any.  The fundraiser really grew initially, through some lucky breaks and really moved when some celebrity golfers got into the act.

The success of this challenge has really set off an escalation race among charities.  How can our fundraiser be bigger, better and more notable? However, it makes sense to look behind the reasons what triggers donors to give at maximum levels.  People are generous and empathetic, but, for those who give, they contribute approx. 2% of their income.  With this statistic to contend with, it is no wonder why fundraisers are looking at metrics to get answers.  Dollars, continue to be important to nonprofits’ success and long-term viability.  People are generous to a point, but gaurded.  You will see a number of new and innovative fundraisers come into being aimed at cracking people’s armor.  Innovative is not enough to gain and keep a person’s attention, one must also look to engage donors using the aforementioned triggers, and also hope for a little luck.



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