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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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Social Information: A gentle nudge in the right direction
Tom Ahern

December, 2011

From the email bag... 


Hey, Tom...


Our board has agreed to write a column a month regarding philanthropy and giving back to the community. Do you happen to have a handy list of 12 to 20 topics that I can give them to spur on their creative juices?


...Thanks, Amy 


My reply...


Dear Amy...


That's a brilliant and generous offer on your board's part. Bravo!!! But sorry, no, I don't have "a handy list of 12 to 20 topics." Not to worry, though. Simply have your board members talk about themselves. Have them answer questions like these:


"When was the first time you thought that our charity was worth supporting? What opened your heart and mind? What was your personal reason for volunteering to serve on this board?" 


This approach has two advantages.


First, they'll be writing about something they know well: their own feelings and life experiences. That should ease them past the dreaded writer's block.


Second, they might just produce for public consumption something that is far more influential than mere words: what psychologists call "social information."


A.k.a, "social proof," in Dr. Robert Cialdini's phrase.


What compost is to a garden, social information is to donations: it makes them grow lush and delectable. 


Social information, social proof: those are academic terms. But the concept is easy enough to understand.


Was this ever you? You're a young almost-adult attending your first formal dinner. A bewildering array of utensils surrounds your plate. Multiple forks. Multiple spoons. You don't know where to start. How do you avoid making an embarrassing social gaffe?


You wait ... and watch how someone else acts.


You think, "That George Clooney look-alike across the table, he looks at ease tonight. I'll just do what he does."   


Throughout our lives, we learn by example from people we respect, admire, like ... or envy. We want to get it right. We want people to think well of us. So quite frequently, when we're not altogether sure how to act: monkey see, monkey do.


Enter Professor Adrian Sargeant. Adrian is, I think, the Sherlock Holmes of the fundraising industry. He wondered if social information might help fundraisers nudge donors toward larger gifts.


His laboratory: American public radio.


Once fully funded by the U.S. government, feisty, independent, and untameable American public radio now receives almost no federal funds.


These days (late 2011), American public radio relies, instead, on intense and frequent fund drives to pay its bills. Which has worked brilliantly. It is now almost entirely "listener-supported radio." The federal contribution is well under 10% ... and falling. 

Public radio is really, really good at asking for money. Their on-air pitches are packed with sharp emotional triggers: exclusivity, loyalty, guilt, anger, fear, loss aversion, tribe ... to name just a few. I love listening to their radio fund drives. It's like going back to graduate school ... for a degree in persuasion.


Still, there's always room for improvement. 


"Oh, yeah? Well, I'm going to match his gift ... and exceed it by 20%! So there ...."   

Adrian Sargeant suggested a small modification to the scripts of the volunteers who answer the phones during fund drives.


Before: "Hello. Thank you so much for supporting public radio. How much would you like to give today?"


After: "Hello. Thank you so much for supporting public radio. Someone from your town just called a few minutes ago and gave $150. How much would you like to give today?"


The social information? "Someone from your town just called a few minutes ago and gave $150." 


You can probably guess what happened. 


Provided with social information, callers began matching - or often exceeding (we're SUCH competitive creatures) - the gifts of their neighbors.


Fundraisers: Please start your thinking caps.


How can you add social information to your appeals, pitches, and presentations?


Visit this special person at


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