Is all solicitation fair in love and charity?

Alright, so maybe my copy of Reality Check is overdue at the library. I'm keeping it longer anyway, though, because it's helpful and direct and thought-provoking, especially when Guy Kawasaki interviews Dr. Robert Cialdini about influence.

You can read the full post here (and I recommend you do). One point that stuck with me, however, was the story about the Hare Krishnas as an example of what NOT to do when soliciting donations:
I did some research in the airports of our country to see how one particular organization, the Hare Krishnas, use this principle to get people to give them money when they don't know anything about this organization-and don't especially like this organization. They had hit upon a strategy that worked remarkably well. Before they ask you for a contribution, they give you something. It can be a book; it can be a flower. In the most cost-effective version, they walk up and they hand you a flower or they pin a flower on your lapel, and you say, I didn't ask for that. Here, take this flower back. And they say, Oh no, no, no. That's our gift to you. However, if you'd like to give a few dollars for the good works of this society, that would be greatly appreciated.

I saw them work for an entire day in the O'Hare Airport. And what I saw was a remarkable testimony to the power of this rule that people feel that if they have received, they can't just walk away without giving something in return. It goes against all our upbringing. Remember our teachers told us, our parents told us, “You must not take without giving in return.” We have very nasty names for people who take without giving in return. We call them moochers or takers, or, as somebody at a conference where I was speaking said, teenagers. Nobody wants to be thought of as immature or a moocher or a taker. What the Krishnas learned was that if they could get somebody to accept something, then that person would feel an obligation to give something back.

What the Krishnas are doing is giving people something that they don't want, it has no value for them, in exchange for something that does have value: their money. And that has created an immediate success for the Krishnas and a long-term disaster. Did you know that they declared bankruptcy in the United States?

Question: Why?
Answer: Because once people have encountered this kind of ploy-this exploitation of the influence principles, they don't want to deal with this person again. If people believed that they received something of value, then they feel that you're entitled to get something in return. You've established a relationship with them. A relationship that leads to referrals, leads to repeat business, good word-of-mouth advertising and so on. And that relationship is a very positive lever for future profit.

I see a powerful nonprofit/charity tie-in here. As the story illustrates, it is easy to prey on people's ingrained fairness. Charities give a gift, you feel obligated to return the favor.

But is this fair of them to do? I'm thinking of the multiple organizations that mail me decorative return address labels, greeting cards, and calendars. I groan whenever I receive this gifts. Not because I don't support the missions, but because I usually haven't budgeted any donations for them and can't afford to make an ad hoc gift.

Worse, I feel guilty using the goods, but I use them anyway. And then I rationalize my guilt away by saying "Ah well, they shouldn't have sent me something for nothing."

This internal response upsets me for two reasons:

1. Apparently I've managed to circumvent my fundamental principles of fairness and charity and reciprocation, all for want of an envelope label.

2. I'm coming to associate these groups with negative feelings. I'm re-annoyed every time I mail a letter and use a label. So I eventually don't want to help them, just out of something dangerously close to spite.

That means that they're losing me as a donor now and forever -- hardly a sustainable strategy. And it means that any money they spent producing the gifts and sending out the mailing is NOT going toward the charity and is NOT being recouped.

So I ask you, dear readers: Following the principles of influence, how can charities and nonprofits who rely on donors better form a relationship with me to ensure I always give and don't come to resent them? I'll post thoughts, ideas, and feedback in a follow-up post next week.