Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fundraising Insight from Steven Levitt the Author of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics

I stumbled over an interesting article in the July 2010 issue of Money: an interview by David Futrelle of Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago professor who applies the tools of economics to surprising new topics. His bestselling books include the popular Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics. He is the co-author of these books along with journalist Stephen Dubner.

I was particularly interested in the portion of the interview in which Levitt discusses why people are so stingy. His politically incorrect comments are worth studying:

In your new book you argue that people are probably even more selfish than we think.

It's complex. The percentage of income people give to charities is on the order of 3%. Research my colleague John List is doing suggests that even when people do give, they don't give willingly except when someone's watching. He's looked at how people react when a person comes to the door asking for a charitable contribution. When he tells people in advance that there will be someone coming at a specific time, people either aren't there or don't open the door. Social pressure is behind a lot of contributions rather than altruism. If you and I were on TV and you'd just won the lottery and I asked you to give some to children in Haiti, you'd have a very hard time turning me down. But what if I sent you a letter in the mail making the exact same request?

I've never really thought about this before - in a systematic manner - but Steven Levitt's comments definitely match my personal experience that social pressure is one of the uncomfortable facts of life regarding fundraising. As a grant writer, however, I think I think of myself as being in a less high pressure arena. Nevertheless, when I write a grant, I am thinking about how I will make the corporate, foundation or government reviewer feel guilty if they don't approve my grant request.

I do this by playing up the hardwork apparent in the grant, the careful planning that has gone into organizing it, and playing up the quality of the research which shows that an innovative solution is at hand for a powerful, previously neglected community problem. I'm also an advocate of getting on the phone to communicate with the funder ahead of time so that they know you are a real person and that your feelings will be hurt if they reject your grant application.

Understanding the hidden social pressure in grant writing will definitely help you improve your success at this seemingly "low pressure" fundraising technique.

If you want to check out the blog he and Dubner participate in on the New York Times website, see

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