Wednesday, March 11, 2009

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.


  1. I completely agree Julia - all those labels and other crap just annoy me. Plus, it represents a wasting a resources and isn't environmentally friendly in any way. How much of my potential donation dollar are they wasting on that stuff?

    I think the way charities can use influence to bring you in is to engage you in their mission rather than send you useless crap. The key word you used is 'relationship'. Charities that send that stuff are not trying to build a relationship with you - they are trying to guilt you into giving them something (also, what do pens and labels have to do with those organizations? The fact that the freebies are not related to their missions is even more frustrating).

    They need to begin a conversation with you. What do you or don't you know about their issue? What is the connection to your life? What is it at this point in time that you can contribute? Maybe its money, time or expertise. No matter the answer, they should tap you for what you can give rather than making assumptions about what you want (i.e. labels).

    I'm having trouble capturing all of my thoughts, but hopefully this makes sense.

  2. Anonymous5:31 PM

    Depending on size of the gift or service, you should receive a note or letter thanking you and an explanation telling you how the funds have been used or will be used. If it was a501C-3 organization, you should receive an official receipt and letter covering all the above. Then you may make a tax deduction. My view is you should ignore most of this type solicitation. Use the stickers if you want to, but feel no obligation to support them. In reality, they invaded your territory. Few people, including political parties, really know how to write begging letters. I get far too many of these. They often are four pages of redundance.
    Good luck, Anymouse

  3. This may be somewhat off-topic, but it's a true story of how someone fended off an annoying request in a witty manner.
    In the era of Robert Louis Stevenson, there was a man who collected autographs. He continually wrote to Stevenson, requesting his autograph. Stevenson never replied. Finally, in exasperation, the man wrote to Stevenson and wrote that, according to the amount of text that Stevenson had written and the wealth he had amassed, the author earned money at the rate of five dollars a word.
    "Here's five dollars," the man wrote, with the bill enclosed. "Send me a word."
    Stevenson sent back a note that read, "Thanks."

    Now, THAT'S getting the upper hand!