The Selfish Truth About Charity

Human beings evolved and mastered our surroundings, overcame challenges and ultimately survived and prospered.  We did better than just survive because at our very core, our subconscious level, at our DNA level, we’re selfish (Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene 1976, Matt Ridley The Origins of Virtue 1996).  We do many things instinctively, subconsciously and guilt free, despite the fact that many of these actions are built on a solid foundation of self-interest, including being altruistic.

This subconscious, self-interested instinct is important for not-for-profit (NFP) leaders to understand as it is the core driver that underpins giving and fundraising. The charitable expression of ‘Altruism’, ie, giving, donating, volunteering, isn’t selflessness, it’s a subconscious survival strategy that is all about self.  It is selfish.

This notion that altruism is a selfish behaviour is not new.  Books such as The Selfish Gene,  The origins of Virtue and The Moral Animal, Robert Wright (1994) are good reads and there’s plenty more.

The purpose of this article is to bring this understanding back to the fore to build a perspective for charities, a paradigm shift for many on why people give. It’s time to change the game through deeper understanding of our deep rooted drivers.

Charity revolves around the notion of altruism, so let’s begin with a definition. The Oxford dictionary describes altruism as “Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”. So a truly altruistic donor or fundraiser gains no benefit from the experience.  Do you believe that? Try not sending receipts or not acknowledging donors, try reducing the benefits a major donor or benefactors receives and see if it’s a selfless, distinterested person you’re talking to.    

You see if pure altruism exists we wouldn’t need fundraising at all would we?  We’d just put a big secure mailbox out the front or a simple donation button on our website and the cash would pour in.  We wouldn’t need major donor programs, we wouldn’t need face-to-face fundraisers, call centres, peer to peer fundraising tools, fun runs or anything that interacts with our donors at all.  Lovely altruistic people would just rock up and anonymously throw their hard-won savings at us without giving it a second thought, we wouldn’t even need to say thanks. 

It doesn’t work like that though does it?  We all think we’re special, we’re different, we’re committed to helping others because we’re a nice person.  Realistically though we are helping others, we’re ‘altruistic’ because subconsciously we understand that there’s something in it for us.  Now don’t go thinking bad of yourself, get defensive or lose faith in humankind, we’re talking about behaviour that’s ingrained, primal and usually subconscious. 

Suggesting our notion of ‘altruism’ is just selfish behaviour is confrontational and difficult to accept by charities. As Richard Dawkins points out in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’ we don’t have to like the truth, we can have an opinion of it but we can’t ignore it.  We can do something about it, we can make conscious decisions to counter this inbuilt behaviour and largely we do. But we are a selfish species aren’t we? Well, we’re not constantly selfish at a conscious level, but we’ve evolved in such a way that our mechanisms to survive are hard-wired within us.

Don’t get me wrong, altruism and our belief in it as a society is critical.  We exist today because the concept of altruism is applauded within society. Most likely our sense of community is due to what’s known as reciprocal altruism. As a charity or NFP, the important learning is that donors, fundraisers and volunteers are getting value out of their altruistic actions and it is game-changing when you understand what that value is.

If giving and fundraising is a selfish act, ask yourself why?  What’s in it for the donor or fundraiser? It’s not a one way street where donors give and charities receive.  It’s a value exchange. Think valuism, not altruism.

Flip your thinking and orient yourself around the notion that you have a product to ’sell’. Your ‘customers’ have a need (which I’ll cover next). They get value (conscious and unconscious) and you get value (income).

Fundraise or Rolex – same, same

Survival of our species over time was due to a complex series of trial and error experiments where a positive outcome meant survival and a negative outcome often meant death. There are a number of things we learnt when we were busy doing all this evolving (there’s probably an app for that now).  Here’s what we learnt:

  1. We must reproduce or our genes will perish
  2. We must have food and shelter or we will perish
  3. We must work together and help each other or we will perish
  4. We must keep our kinship group safe or our survival has been a waste of time and our genes will perish

So we spent many tens of thousands of years as a species “learning” these things.  These were universal “truths” and if you didn’t agree, you could go your own way and perish quite successfully.  But survival was our way of life and it still is.  The modern trappings that surround us now are very recent really and tens of thousands of years of survival-oriented hard-wiring in our brains didn’t disappear once supermarkets, shopping malls and IKEA opened up.

If you’re not a believer of hard wiring, think about how many things animals do instinctively, straight out of the womb.  No time to learn, no teaching.  For babies the sucking reflex and the gag reflex are complex mechanical moves, within seconds there they are, they came pre-installed as it happens, hard-wired, like the operating system on your computer, installed for one critical purpose, survival.

Are you still with me?

Now what has all this to do with fundraising and donating?  Well you see, we still have all of these needs subconsciously driving our behaviours. Smart marketeers are playing with those needs as we’re all susceptible to them. By way of examples; Do you need a Rolex watch to tell the time? What about Chanel No. 5 perfume? Mercedes Benz? A Ralph Polo Lauren rugby top with the logo all over it?

We are compelled to buy these things or desire them because our underlying need is to attract a mate (see point 1 above).  Mates are more attracted to those who are successful. Clever marketeers have made us believe that these items will indeed make us seem more attractive to a mate by making us look and feel more successful. And here’s the kicker, we can’t switch these underlying needs off. They will always be there, we have to consciously fight them.

Now most of us don’t spend a lot of time internalising why we just paid $150 for a bottle of liquid that makes us smell like something we’re not. Take wine as another classic learned response, if you had never drunk wine before would you be able to pick out a glass of Grange Hermitage ($500) over a glass of $10 wine? Wine drinkers must be trained to ‘appreciate’ the difference, trained to spot the label, know the price, recognise the status symbol.

Rather than fight these underlying needs, NFP’s must recognise and embrace them. Once you start to view donating, fundraising and volunteering as a value exchange,  i.e. they are products that fulfil a human need in which ‘consumers’ give something up to obtain – then you can start to add more value to your supporters. Surprisingly buying a rolex watch and fundraising for a charity have a similar benefit – they communicate status, something about us.

Altruism is a warm fluffy label we add to a critical behaviour that is ultimately self-interested. We need the notion of ‘altruism’, we need generosity, we need donors for the survival of our species, but let’s just get over altruism as a one-way street and start embracing what I call ‘valuism’.    

The new paradigm of valuism based fundraising

So ‘altruism’ is a selfish behaviour that’s critical for society.  It is the socially applauded public expression that identifies the behaviour, driven by the subconscious understanding, that if we do good to others, it will improve our chances of genetic survival.  My brain hurts just writing that. Ultimately, despite the fact that it sounds somewhat sinister, it’s what keeps the world a nice place. Without the notion of altruism we’d be in a truly selfish world and that wouldn’t be nice at all.

The reason charities need to challenge their belief in altruism is to challenge the thinking that people give and fundraise out of a selfless act.  This is just lazy thinking and for the vast majority couldn’t be further from the truth and it’s holding the opportunities back both for charities and donors/fundraisers.

We’re in challenging territory now.

So fundraising, donating and volunteering can help to meet our subconscious, primal needs.  Rather than thinking about fundraising by the name of the activity, e.g. bequests, direct mail, we need to think about them in terms of the value they provide the individual.  When it comes to fundraising there are four main types of fundraising activities or what would be better to refer to as products.  Using the word ‘product’ orients us to a value exchange.  So here’s the new way to think about your products using the Valuism Portfolio approach:

Valuism Portfolio

  • Kinship products or legacy products
  • Profile raisers or status signallers
  • Connectors
  • Reciprocal products

It’s easy to think this a corporate approach to manipulate the public but it couldn’t be further from the truth. This is simply about orienting your activities around the value you deliver. Understanding this stuff is about raising more money because you’ll be delivering a lot more value to your customers.

Don’t think altruism, think valuism. Think about how you can use this knowledge to add more value through your products to your customers. This next section will go into more detail around the new definitions.


Kinship products

These products enable people to leave a legacy (to live beyond the grave) that will protect their kinship group.  Part of that protection will be by way of teaching them the importance of being a strong member of their community (a survival skill) and the other will be in genuinely helping protect them, giving them a better, safer life.   

Charities refer to these products primarily by the name Bequests or in-memory donations.  For those that have outlived their children or not had children they still have a desire for their family to live on, even if just by name or a simple plaque.  If nothing is left when you die, then from a genetic survival perspective – you have failed – so let them leave something and help them go to the grave knowing they have left something that will live on.

Profile raisers/status signallers

While I was working with Cancer Council I challenged my team to answer why Movember was so successful.  Was mens health, depression and prostate cancer key motivators for fundraising action in men?  If a desire to make a difference in this space was a driver then why did so many men not know who benefitted and what they did with the money.  Why is it one of Australia’s most successful fundraising activities when so many people don’t know what happens to the money?

If Movember changed to benefit another cause like bowel cancer would it be as successful?  Probably.  So why is it successful?  Great marketing? No doubt, these guys are awesome and producing a compelling brand.  The reality is that generosity and an ability to contribute to others signals success (I’m successful enough to give back). A good sense of humour is an attractive male trait sought by potential mates. Facial hair is a signal of androgen and testosterone – both good for reproduction in a male.

So as it happens, growing a moustache in November makes you more attractive, and it’s pretty hard to miss as it’s right there on your face, a signal that you are worth mating with.  Best bit is you don’t even have to raise a dollar now, people will just think you’re doing it.  This type of conspicuous activity we refer to as ‘signalling’.

This same signalling logic was used with Daffodil Day in South Australia (SA) in 2013.  We looked at the reason to wear a pin.  A pin is a badge and a badge or logo is a signalling device.  It is meant to convey some sense of who you are.  The problem was that at Cancer Council we were too fixated on selling yellow things on Daffodil Day that we lost the relevance of the pin as the signalling device.

In SA, we invested in brand activity which showcased the pin, then we built a campaign that carried the line “What everyone who cares about beating cancer will be wearing” and featured the Daffodil Day pin.  We ran this campaign while the rest of the country ran the previous campaign.  In SA results were up 30% on previous years while the rest of the country, every state, was in decline on previous years.

So this stuff worked.  We focused on how we can add value to the people who purchased the pin.  We wanted them to feel better about wearing it and we let other people know what the people wearing the pin stood for.  At a primal level, we were making them more attractive to potential mates.

Another highly successful campaign in SA was the Ride for a Reason campaign.  Designed to tap into an existing bicycle ride as part of the Santos Tour Down Under. Ride for a reason was a classic peer to peer fundraising product.  Almost exclusively online execution, people register then use peer-to-peer software to cast a message and solicit support.

To help trigger increased fundraising intent we established fundraising tiers ($80, $500, $1000) which, once met provided the fundraiser with a piece of clothing as part of the exclusive Ride for a reason cycling kit.   Raising $1,000 meant you got the whole kit, sleeves, shorts, jersey.

The kicker though was that the kit had to look good, it had to be attractive and it had to be distinctive.  To ensure the value to the wearer we had to put material in market to explain why the wearer was so awesome.  We even put black panelling on the sides and used colours to make the wearer look slimmer – fundraisers are not always and often not, supreme athletes.  We put signage up along different cycling climbs during peak cycling periods that communicated about the jersey and what it meant.  On top of this the campaign featured a fundraising leaderboard for teams and individuals – we published this in the newspaper over the last few weeks of the campaign period.

All of these activities were aimed at one thing – add value to the fundraisers.   Make the fundraiser look successful, make them look more attractive, give them opportunities to shine.  Peer to peer fundraising after all is about profile raising through your network and make no mistake, it’s about signalling your qualities as a potential mate.  (remember, this is not a conscious action, it’s innate and you can’t switch it off)

All of your fundraising products should be geared around helping your fundraisers raise their profile, look more successful (attractive) and spread their personal brand. It’s your job to do that.

Connectors

We’re a tribal species, safety in numbers and finding our tribe is critical for survival and prosperity.  We look for opportunities to bring our tribe together, to participate in active survival.  As with profile raisers we are also looking at ways to meet like-minded potential mates.

With society going more online and less face-to-face we’re constantly looking for opportunities to connect with real people in a non-virtual way.  In a touchy feely kind of way.  Activities like fun runs and mass participation style activities are going to grow.  They are already booming but given societies need to find connections they are going to grow even more.  But here’s the kicker…

…they need to be built with connection in mind.  Allow people to feel a part of a kinship group, give them a joint experience that brings them closer together.  Fun-runs are often the classic oxymoron, they’re usually not designed to be fun, they are often very basic, they focus on the run and not the fun.

If you’re going to put on a fun-run deliver big time on the fun and make sure people get a chance at the end to laugh and celebrate together.   In SA we developed a successful fun-run product called Undies Run for Bowel Cancer, it was 1.6km long and attracted 1200 runners in it’s first year.  Now a 1.6km long run is hardly a run at all.  Most runners don’t get out of bed for less than 5kms.  But 1.6km meant one thing – it would be more fun than run.  It needed to deliver.  In 2015 it raised $160k in fundraising income alone from 1500 Undies Runners.

Connectors are about bringing people together for a shared experience.  They create a platform for kinship groups to hang out and connect and they create an environment for people to meet likeminded others.

Reciprocal products

Let’s save the best till last.  Reciprocity has been our key to survival and you will have used the language throughout your life – eye for an eye, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, what goes around comes around, give and take, karma.  All of these sayings and concepts are deep rooted in survival.

We survived and evolved by helping each other.  We knew that while the wooly mammoth we just caught would keep us in food for a while, we might not kill another one for a long time, our fire might go out and the saber tooth tiger might eat us and our mammoth while we slept.  If we give some to our neighbours they might share their wood with us, help us kill the tiger and give us some of their mammoth when we’re hungry.   

We’re wired to help others in exchange for something in return.  We know however that the returning favour may not be immediate.  If we’re a bit more spiritual we hope the returning favour will pay out due to some act of god.  Either way reciprocity is in us and charities thrive on it.  Those sad letters you write to compel donors to give, based on triggering guilt that triggers donors to give in case they need help later themselves.  Imagine not responding to the plight of someone in severe distress and then the next day you need some help yourself, or your kids or grand kids.  We need to address the imbalance we feel when others are less fortunate than ourselves.

Reciprocity often works on the imbalance we feel when something bad happens to someone else.  When bushfires, tsunamis or famines take lives, we feel an imbalance, the more emotive the image the greater the imbalance.  We have to respond to redress that imbalance.  The evolutionary driver of reciprocity pushes on our brain to respond, we feel compelled to contribute lest we need help one day.  Religion often plays highly on this with the notion of being judged at the pearly gates.  Fairly compelling.

There’s another cracking area where reciprocity drives income significantly, Peer to Peer fundraising.  I would argue that this area is trading significantly under it’s true potential. Operating largely to this powerful core driver, reciprocity reigns supreme in this space.   The key to online peer to peer giving though is tapping into the relationship that exists and how that reciprocity can be harnessed to add value to both the fundraiser and the donor.

It’s so important to understand that the reciprocity in this case exists not with the charity and the donor or even the fundraiser and the charity but with the donor and the fundraiser.  It’s not surprising that soliciting donations directly from someone who donated to a fundraiser is a wrong move.  That person is expecting reciprocation from the fundraiser and not wanting a relationship with the charity.

NFP’s need to work out how to add value to the fundraiser by helping them meet the debt they will owe their friends/family/acquaintances when they ask them for a donation.  This is where things get interesting.  Unlock that piece of the puzzle and fundraising gets a whole lot easier.

A caveat

There’s a big caveat attached to this knowledge.  Do not tell your consumers that you believe this, or know this.  This is not being deceitful, it’s actual understanding how the human mind works.  If we think someone knows us that well, we will do the opposite.  So your campaigns should never be overt in recognising the human need but ensure that your products meet the needs and are crafted around these needs. This is about adding value to your customers through your products.

Make no mistake, the way fundraising has been occurring has been successful.  You can’t argue with the significant sums of money that come in around the world.  Things are going well.  Things could be going better though.  We’re in tough times in Australia where competition is increasing, where charities are required to do more to support more people.  As a consumer, there are more things to spend your money on than ever before.

If you think about fundraising activities as profile raisers, who, or what are you competing with?  It’s very likely your competitors are not other fundraising events but other ways individuals can make themselves look more attractive.  You have to cut through, you have to be more compelling and the trait of generosity must shine bright in the eyes of those looking on.

Stop thinking money, start thinking value creation.  Start thinking about your donors real needs.  We’re not an altruistic race, we’re a selfish race, we are hard wired to survive. NFP’s will thrive once they understand that they are creating value for their customers and that they must build products (or modify existing products) that are not focused on raising money but on delivering value in exchange for money.  In the fundraisers space, things are just starting to get interesting.

It’s time to completely rethink fundraising from the consumer needs perspective.  Think valueism.

If you’d like an internal masterclass in your workplace then get in touch.  We’re here to help and we’re passionate about changing the game.

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