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Want to Deepen Your "Culture of Philanthropy?" Add Social Information

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Charities with big dollar signs in your eyes? For you, building a ‘culture of philanthropy’ is key. But how?

Ed Dorsch, senior associate director of development communications at the University of Oregon, asked a very good question. He wrote:

Here’s the deal. Our newsletter goes out to some recipients who do not give at all. And, in many cases, the story is about a given area that the majority of readers have not given to (probably never will).

So let’s say I write an article that starts out something like this — “Thanks to you, students in the music school are performing on a top-notch Steinway piano.”

That works in an appeal to music donors. But the majority of my newsletter readers are not music donors (and even those who are may have given for scholarships or something). So I think it comes across as strange (not to mention untrue).

Seems to me, there’s a disconnect that would rattle these readers (“What does he mean? I didn’t give to the Steinway piano fund!”).

The disadvantage of this jarring experience for the majority of my readers seems like it would outweigh any plusses involved with using “you” in this case.

I would much rather write “Thanks to generous donors…”


I replied:

Here’s what I’d publish in that circumstance, Ed. I’d run a headline in your “goes to everybody” donor newsletter, a headline that proclaimed something like:

Calling all donors to the music school. We want you to hear our thundering chorus of “Thanks!”

The article would not need to begin, “Thanks to you…”

School of FishThe reasoning?

Even though most of Ed’s newsletter recipients will NOT be donors to the music school, there are benefits to announcing any and every gift, no matter what specific interest that particular gift underwrites.

Psychologists call it “social information.” Social information is what we notice other people doing. A lot of the behavior we see we just “tsk-tsk” away. But the behaviors of people we admire or consider peers? Those behaviors we tend to mimic.

Parents tell us how to behave. Friends tell us how to behave. Authority figures tell us how to behave. But social information may be the most persuasive of all.

We want to do the right thing.

  • Social information helps.
  • Social information fills us in. (“I didn’t know that!”)
  • Social information persuades us to act like others we admire. (“I wish I were them. I should consider doing that, too. That would make me more like them.”)
  • Social information is often how we learn our duties and responsibilities.
  • Social information teaches us behaviors that others will approve of.

For instance:

“I am grateful for my higher education,” I tell myself. “How can I prove that?”

If someone I consider a peer says that they are making a gift “because I’m grateful for the education I got here,” then I, seeing that person’s example and agreeing with that person’s motivation, might well follow along, having seen what they did.

Social information says, in effect: “If you feel this way, act this way.”

Social information points the way for those who have not yet found a direction.

For that reason celebrating every gift – no matter what exactly it’s for – can help point people in the right direction. No matter what kind of gift you’re reporting on, it’s all social information in the end.

In that sense, a gift to the music school is just as good as a gift to sports medicine. Because every qualified onlooker learns from every gift. A rising tide of gifts will raise all boats – in all departments – for all time.

What matters is that people I consider my peers are BEING philanthropic, at whatever level they can.

And finally, in my humble opinion:

It’s not the SIZE of the gift that matters if you’re trying to nurture a culture of philanthropy.

Institutions love to trumpet their big gifts. But where’s the love for the generous donors who can’t afford to plunk down a million dollars for a capital campaign? Nowhere, usually.

I think that’s a grave mistake. I believe that celebrating the ACT of giving is just as important, maybe more important, than celebrating the SIZE of the gift.

At least if you’re trying to grow your culture of philanthropy.

This post originally appeared in the Ahern Donor Communications Newsletter

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