The year was 2007 in Philadelphia, home to the triumph represented by the Liberty Bell, the triumph represented by Rocky Balboa, and the triumph represented by a college fundraising department.
Adam Grant was a management professor at the Wharton School of Business at Penn. He wanted to find out why the college was having such difficulty raising the necessary capital to support a very worthy cause: a scholarship fund for exceptional students who weren’t financially able to attend college.
The fundraising department would call well-vetted potential donors with a good script. The university was under financial strain. The prospective students were demonstrably exceptional, each came with an impressive list of accomplishments. These were the kind of students that Penn needed to attract to boost important programs.
Everything seemed set up for success to bring in the funds. But it wasn’t working.
The fundraisers had some success. But despite more research and improvements to the script, they couldn’t seem to perform any better. That, coupled with mundane and repetitive work and frequent, sometimes rude rejection, led to low morale and high turnover… further compounding the problems.
So Grant and a team of researchers set out to conduct a study.
The call center employees were separated into one control group and two variable groups. The control group was told to continue on as usual, with a solid script and a good list of names.
The variable groups interacted with Will, a scholarship recipient who Grant’s team identified and who was willing to share a short story about how the scholarship had affected his life.
The first variable group read a letter that Will had written about his story. The second variable group met will face-to-face to hear him tell his story for five minutes.
In the following months, Grant tracked the performance of each of the groups.
The control group showed no change.
The group who read Will’s letter showed no change.
The group who met with Will for five minutes showed incredible results.
In the next month alone, the average caller was able to spend 142% more time on the phone with potential donors, and the fundraising department brought in 171% more weekly revenue.
The results were so incredible that Grant replicated the experiment five more times, as new semesters brought in new employees. The department saw the same results every time.
One time, the student recipient talked about how the scholarship had funded archeological digs by the university. The subsequent effect was an astonishing 406% increase in weekly revenue, from an average of $411 a week to $2,083. Combined, the 23 callers in the group that met that recipient raised over $38,000 that they would not have raised before in just one week.
Grant and the fundraising team’s example is a powerful example of getting close to the people whose story you’re a part of. The fundraisers were likely more successful for two reasons:
- They had real life examples to show donors.
- They were more motivated and inspired themselves.
Why Were Donors More Motivated?
We, as humans, love stories. Beyond that, we love personal stories.
For some reason, the story of one person succeeding – or failing – resonates more with us that the story a group, or an organization, or a population.
When the numbers grow, it creates an abstraction, where it becomes more difficult for our relationship-based brains to imagine knowing the subjects of the story as closely as if it was one or a few people.
Showcasing the Story
The exception, of course, is if we’re included or very closely connected to the group. We want to hear about the growth of the organization our significant other is a part of, and the decline of a group we identify with “hits home.”
At PHOS, as part of our Global Mission, we support children through Compassion International. One of the great things about the way Compassion works is that you don’t just give to a cause – a very worthy cause – you give to a child. You know the child’s name, you have their photo, you know where they live and things about them. You can even write to them. Recently, Miguel, one of our sponsored children, sent us a letter letting us know what’s going on in his life, including a hand-drawn picture.
Beyond that, it’s not just us as a company who supports each child. Each team member picks a child they would like to support, by whatever criteria they’d like (same age as one of our children, same birthday, favorite sports, or just a cute picture). That team member is then the one who gets to communicate with the child.
People are naturally relationship-based, and for that reason, the story of an individual is powerful to us.
Why Were Fundraisers More Motivated?
As humans, we’re also naturally cooperative creatures.
Simon Sinek loves to tell the story of what he calls the 4 happiness chemicals: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. He presents that each of these chemicals plays a separate part in one cause: keeping us alive.
In that light, it’s interesting that two of the chemicals, serotonin, and oxytocin, are more about others than about us. They’re the ones that produce feelings that we describe as loyalty, intimacy, allegiance, and safety.
As social creatures, we love when we get to see the direct, tangible impact of our work.
Do everything you can to get close to your customers. Including, and especially, your leadership team.
In addition, listen to the people who are already close to the customers! Sales, support, and front-line employees are the ones who know best what the customers are doing, thinking, saying, and wanting. Give them every chance to make their voice heard, and listen to them.