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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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Skipping Stones
Penelope Burk

September, 2010

My record is nine – a single stone skipping nine times across the lake before it sinks to the bottom. The problem is, I achieved this personal milestone at the age of fourteen, when my father was sailing, my mother was out shopping, and my siblings were…well, scattered all over the place. I was home because I was supposed to be doing my homework. I wasn’t. And, now, my monumental achievement could not be independently verified. It served me right.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but skipping stones – which I did often – was a precursor to my later interest in numbers and patterns and, eventually, how they are both important to understanding and influencing behavior.

That influence was in full gear recently as I left my local mall, weighed down with purchases. People were hurrying in both directions through the heavy glass doors. These doors are particularly vicious; they are a barrier to the cold wind that whips through them in the winter, and they create a virtual vacuum seal when they close. It takes a monumental effort to pull one open, and even when you accomplish it, you then have to move very quickly through the gap to avoid being whacked. So, shoppers are motivated to fall strategically in behind someone else, close enough that the person in front will see or sense that someone is there and, hopefully, hold the door open.

There was a time when letting the door go in someone’s face was unthinkable, but not so today. So, I was frustrated, but not surprised, when the person in front of me did just that. I scrambled to grab the handle before the door closed completely, missed, dropped all my parcels, and caused a pedestrian traffic jam. No one was concerned for my welfare; on the contrary, they were visibly irritated at my having broken the rhythm as they stepped over my stuff.

Now, if my readers “of a certain age” are thinking, “Young people today…they’re just uncivilized”, the cavalier door-slammer was in his fifties, wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase.

After pulling myself and my purchases together, I mused — I never let the door go and I always break my stride when necessary so that the person behind, regardless of how far from the door, will not have it slammed in his or her face. (OK, so I’m a saint.) As I thought about this, I realized that I feel good when I hold the door for the next person. If the individual is right behind, he usually offers a quick thanks or a smile; if she is further away, she quickens her pace so I won’t be inconvenienced, gives a more pronounced and often surprised, “thank you”, and makes direct eye contact.

I decided to conduct an experiment. I watched from the sidelines (alternatively pretending to tie my shoe or rearrange my parcels) while observing whether people did or did not hold the door open for others. Two out of three did not. But, whether the action was positive (holding the door for the next person) or negative (letting it go), it influenced the same behavior in those who followed….until someone broke the pattern. I turned my attention to the positive 33%. With a skill honed decades earlier from skipping stones when I should have been doing other things, I soon determined that a chain of three was the norm, but that occasionally it grew to five. I wondered whether exceptionally positive behavior could extend the chain longer. (Could my record of nine skips across the lake be beaten?!) I was really into this now.

I became the instrument of my own experiment. Moving into place, I chose a door with less traffic, stepped through, held the door open, looked back and smiled at the person several steps behind. She quickened her pace, but my smile said, “No need to hurry; I’ll hold the door open for you.” This extra effort on my part inspired the same in her, and a chain of six was the end result. I took up position again, this time holding the door open for a man. Same thing. Men, women, young, old – it didn’t matter. The greater the positive effort by the person controlling the door, the more likely it was that the chain of positive behavior that ensued was longer.

I kept this up for some time, until Mall security became quite interested in me.

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with fundraising. While I know you can figure out the metaphor, there is a statistic that might interest you. 89% of American households give. This means that at any moment in time, there is a nine out of ten chance that if you don’t hold the door open for the person behind you, you’ll be slamming it in a donor’s face.

I hope you had a great summer. Welcome back to the world that is over-stressed, self-absorbed and moves much too fast – but whose behavior can be instantly transformed by the simplest of positive gestures.

Check out penelope Burk at


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