26: You Have More Influence Than You Think Fundraiser Addition with Vanessa Bohns

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“You really do have to work extra hard to get your perspective out there and to make the connection.”

– Vanessa Bohns

Episode #26


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

Have you ever thought about the influence you have as a fundraiser? Or the way your funders might be influencing you in ways they don’t intend to? Well, it turns out that we all have some misconceptions about influence and it has recently been under the scientific eye. PhD.

Vannessa Bohns, a social psychologist and professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University has focused her research on this topic, so I invited her to be part of the second season guests of What The Fundraising to dismantle some of the most common assumptions and biases around influence and when and how we should use it in our fundraising work.

Vanessa’s book, You Have More Influence Than You Think, is so valuable through the lens of fundraising and she has done research about fundraising and fundraisers specifically.   

26: You Have More Influence Than You Think Fundraiser Addition with Vanessa Bohns

We talk about the ways that we as fundraisers underestimate our influence, and the way that donors underestimate their influence too. We talk about when you might want to use influence and the impact on the other person being ‘influenced’, and when and how you might want to create an environment of conscious choice. 

Most importantly, we talk about how important it is to talk transparently with each other so that we’re not making assumptions that hold our organization back or restrict funding in unnecessary ways. Join us to know what are science’s most valuable takes on influence and trust building for fundraisers and donors!



Vanessa Bohns:


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26: You Have More Influence Than You Think Fundraiser Addition with Vanessa Bohns
26: You Have More Influence Than You Think Fundraiser Addition with Vanessa Bohns
26: You Have More Influence Than You Think Fundraiser Addition with Vanessa Bohns

Tips and Tools to Implement Today

Part I

Part Ii

Favorite quotes

Part I

Part II

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I teach nonprofit fundraisers to bring in more gifts from the RIGHT donors… so they can stop hounding people for money. Fundraising doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.


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episode transcript

Part i

Mallory: Welcome everyone. I am so excited to be here today with Vanessa Bohns, Vanessa, thank you for joining me for this conversation. 

Vanessa: Thanks so much for having me. I’m looking forward to it.

Mallory:So tell us just a little bit more about you and what has inspired your interest in influence.

Vanessa: Sure. So I am an experimental social psychologist and I’ve been studying social influence for about 15 years now. And the way I studied social influence is pretty different from how other people tend to study it. So most people who study social influence look at what are the ways that I can get people to do things, hat are the ways that I can influence someone or gain influence myself. I’m really interested in what our intuitions are about influence and whether they’re accurate or not.

So do we know the best way to influence people or are we way off when we try to guess the best way to, to ask someone to do something? For example, do we recognize the influence that we have over other people all the time? And so I tend to run studies where I have people explicitly express their intuitions about influence and then go out and test them. And then we look at whether those intuitions line up with what actually happens. 

Mallory: Was there something that happened in your life or in your professional experience that inspired you to look at influence through this particular angle? 

Vanessa: So when I was a graduate student at Columbia university, I was working with a professor named Frank Flynn and we were working on a traditional influence type study and to get data for that study, I had to go down to Penn Station in New York city and ask random strangers to fill out a survey.

And so I would go up to random people and say “Hey, I’m doing this survey. Would you please fill out this questionnaire?” and wait for them to respond. And this experience was, even though it sounds dramatic to say this, it was quite traumatic at the time. And I still have this anxiety response when I enter Penn Station, because I had this idea in my mind that this was going to be so awful that each person I approached was going to get mad at me, clearly reject me. I don’t know. I just had this idea that they were going to do something terrible, but in fact, it wound up that the people that I approached were much more willing to agree to do things for me than I expected.

When I brought the data back to the professor I was working with and we looked at it, our initial sort of hypothesis didn’t really work out. I don’t even remember many of the details of it, but when we’re looking at the data, we were both taken by the fact that so many people in New York’s Penn Station had agreed to complete this survey.

So we wondered if maybe that was actually the most interesting part of what I had done. I had this idea that it was going to be this really difficult, really awful task. But, in fact, it was easier than I expected, and I was more successful at getting people to do this thing than I expected.

And so that’s been what started the trajectory of my research ever since. And now. I run studies where I put other people in that same situation and make them go out and ask people to do things 

Mallory: Well, I love that. And I feel like in certain ways you have a really good audience right now with people who probably really see and understand all of those feelings that you have because fundraisers share so many of those experiences.

Cold calling or canvassers, or even in major donor meetings. And so you’re in good company, I’m sure. But I think what’s super interesting is that, my guess would be that fundraisers, hear that and they say “Oh, but I don’t think I’m underestimating how many people are going to actually say yes”, because at the end of the day, a hundred percent of people didn’t say yes, and that’s what they wanted.

And so it probably would be really interesting to have fundraisers use a tracking system, where they predict. How well a phone banking session is going to go and then they see how well it actually goes because that’s where they’ll see that surprise, right?

Vanessa: Definitely. I think it’s critical to track these things for a couple of reasons. One, we all have something called hindsight bias, where at once we see what happened, we assumed we would have known all along. So it’s good to put your prediction down and then see whether that prediction you had before you didn’t actually do it, aligns with what actually happened.

And then the other thing we have is something called negativity bias. And so if I were to ask you, how many people agree to this and you didn’t have the data, you would focus on more of the negatives, more of the rejections just naturally, because those are the things that are most salient, then the positives and the ‘yeses’.

And so really being deliberate about tracking all this information is really important to see if this is really happening. 

Mallory: Yes, because we make so many assumptions about how something is going to go and we predict the future and all of those ways. So I love it. And in your book, chapter three, you talk about fundraisers specifically, and you talk about some really interesting findings around influence.

I want to talk about a number of those when it comes to fundraisers, but I’m curious for you, what were some of your biggest surprises learning about influence and fundraising? 

Vanessa: I think I was most surprised by the fact that, as you said, I’ve now run studies with fundraisers and I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen because I had run all these other studies with just ordinary participants.

I thought, people who had already participated in fundraising before wouldn’t show the same biases, that they would really know what was going on. But I was surprised that they also seem to show many of the same biases and even university deans asking for millions of dollars show a lot of these same sorts of psychological biases, thinking it’s going to be more awkward than it actually is raising issues of money and things like that. 

Mallory: I love that. And university deans, just how you talk about it in your book, are so similar to nonprofit leaders in that they become accidental fundraisers. They find themselves in a position. That’s what happened to me. I found myself in an executive director role. It came with big fundraising responsibilities, and I would say the majority of fundraisers are that way. They don’t pursue a career in fundraising, but it comes with the territory of the work that they want to do.

And so your findings, everyone needs to go read this book because there’s more than we’ll be able to talk about today, but I thought it was just so appropriate. So tell us maybe at the high level, what are some of the biggest ways that fundraisers underestimate their influence?

Vanessa: So what I find when I review the literature on how our intuitions aligned with our actual influence is that we tend to have several psychological biases.

So one is that we don’t realize how much other people are paying attention to us. When we’re just going about our day, making little offhand comments and behaving in certain ways, people are actually noticing us and paying more attention to us than we tend to realize. We tend to underestimate how much people take our words to heart, how much they think about them after we’ve walked away from an interaction and how positively they tend to think about interactions that we’ve had with them.

And so that’s a second sort of bias that’s been shown. And a third one is that we underestimate how likely people are to do things for us. So we go into a lot of situations, assuming that people’s default is to say no, assuming people’s default is to argue against us when in fact people’s default tends to be agreeable.

That’s actually how people tend to behave. And we forget that when we’re the ones who need something or are asking for something. 

Mallory: Okay. And there’s so many components to this that relate to fundraising. So let’s break them apart. Let’s talk about that piece about being agreeable or saying yes. You talk a lot in the book about the challenges around saying no, and that we underestimate or overestimate how easy it would be for somebody to say no when in fact it’s quite hard. Tell us about that, because I know when you and I first talked, I was like “There seems to be this really interesting balance here between recognizing fundraisers that you have tremendous influence and what types of fundraising environments will allow you to flex that influence in the biggest way”.

And then also, how do you create environments of conscious choice for your funders when they’re making big investments? Being done in a way that feels good and positive. So just talk to me a little bit about, I know there’s a lot for us to pick apart, but talk to me a little bit about that

Vanessa: Sure. Yeah. I think on first listen, and even when I first discovered this idea that people were more willing to do things for me in Penn Station.

And then for my participants many years in, along my research program, there’s this kind of tendency to assume people are doing those things because people are nicer than we think, and they are more willing to give than we think. And that is actually true. There is research showing that. But what I actually found in my research is that there’s another component and that is a lot of times people agree to do things because they find it really hard to say no.

Especially when you’re standing in front of someone in the moment and you’re asking them to respond right there. And what happens is when we’re the ones doing the asking, we tend to be so focused on the prospect of rejection because that’s really what’s salient to us. And we know that rejection is painful.

We know that we really want to get to that yes. So it’ll be a failure on our part. And we really worry about that rejection. What we forget is that what it feels like to be on the other side is that it’s actually really hard to be the one doing the rejecting. If you flip the script and you remember a time when someone was asking you for something, it’s hard to find the words to say no. Saying no, has this risk involved, it potentially could damage the relationship. It could potentially suggest that you don’t care about this person. Because as much as they might’ve thought it could suggest that you’re not a friendly giving person. So a lot is going on in that other person’s head that makes it really hard for them to say no and it makes it a really uncomfortable situation.

Especially when we’re face to face, we tend to forget this. And one of the other mistakes that people often make is not realizing how much of a difference it makes when we ask for something in face to face versus over email, for example, in a situation where it’s a lot easier for someone to think about whether they want to say yes or no, and then come to that decision more mindfully and more thoughtfully.

Mallory: Okay. So there’s two things that I think are really interesting about what you just said, many more than two, but I’ll focus on two, because in the book you also talk about that piece around how the person rejecting the other person feels or the fears that they have you also talk about in your book the fact that funders, when they’re asked for a bigger amount than they maybe have the capacity to give, they’re not offended or upset, they’re actually incredibly flattered. So I think what you’re saying is that they might have some stress reaction around the feelings for the fundraiser, but in terms of how they feel about the fundraiser, it’s still positive.

Vanessa: That’s right. And this actually came out of some of my conversations with the university deans, who, as you said, tend not to be trained in fundraising. They’re put in these situations they never thought they’d be in where they’re asking for millions of dollars. And they can’t imagine asking someone for this amount of money.

And they actually think if they ask for too much, it’s going to offend the other person. And they’re going to bulk at this request. But in talking to these university deans, the thing that I learned was that they quickly discovered that people aren’t offended when they get asked for lots of money, they feel good.

They feel almost flattered that you think that they can offer that much. And it’s also a very different cultivated situation, right? If you’re asking for these large amounts of money, it’s not like you’re asking someone on the street who has no connection to that organization. A lot has been done in advance to get you in that room with that person. And they’re ready for that ask. And then it’s about figuring out the number. And so I found that to be really interesting, this idea that “Oh, someone might be offended because I asked for too much”, when actually in many cases they’re flat. 

Mallory: Okay. Yeah. I love that too. And I’ve been saying that for awhile, but you saying that is going to go a lot farther. So I really appreciate that insight and that finding. So I’m curious, thinking about a fundraiser who has a major gift and wants to ask the donor for a major gift. If they were to, for example, send an email, because we know that doesn’t give them as much influence, but it gives the other person the time to reflect on the invitation and the emails, just to invite them to a meeting, to talk about their giving for the year or future years. And so then when they’re in that meeting, I think what I also hear you saying, is there’s this other level of permission that’s been given then to make a face to face ask. A

nd so tell me from your perspective, when you say, yeah, that’s an effective fundraising strategy to focus on alignment, give folks the opportunity to lead to a comfortable in person interaction. And then for the fundraiser to recognize that once you are in that face-to-face interaction, you have the permission to use your influence, to inspire and encourage folks to invest in a big way.

Vanessa: I do think that’s a strategy that can work. And I like the idea of mix and match with these different modes of communication. Because especially in cases, when you’re asking for large amounts of money this is not a one and done situation. You don’t send an email and it’s done, you don’t have one meeting and it’s done.

And so you do wind up corresponding in these different ways, right? You have in person meetings, sometimes you have phone calls, sometimes you exchange emails and it’s important to recognize what each of those things is doing and how they either put the other person on the spot or not. And so one way, as you suggested, is to prepare someone for that in-person meeting.

So now they’ve read the email. Clearly, if they’re inviting you to an in-person meeting, you’ve gotten past the first step and they must have wanted to have that meeting. And so I do think that opens the door to be a little bit more open in that meeting. It gives you that permission. Another way to mix and match the modes would be to have an in-person meeting ,where you talk and you make your pitch because in-person, you can be much more influential, there’s a lot more trust and social connection. We know there’s a lot that goes on in-person interactions. You can’t recreate a regular. But then follow up over email. You don’t put them on the spot to make any decisions in that meeting, but instead the details are ironed out through another mode of communication.

But this idea that I will have some in-person interaction that cultivates that trust, where we have these conversations and some email communication where people feel a little more comfortable pushing back and coming up with an arrangement that they feel most comfortable with. 

Mallory: Okay. I love that. And I’m curious, there’s been this sort of growing wave of technology around videos that can be inserted into emails and even some that are tied specifically to making asks, whether that’s for a favor or fundraising. I’m curious, is there any data yet about the impact video has on influence?

Vanessa: So it’s funny that you should ask that because my former graduate student, I just had a paper published on the question of where video and the phone fits amongst these kinds of modes of communication between in-person and email.

And what we find is that, as you might suspect, it’s somewhere in the middle. And we actually look at situations where you just offer a video message, which is similar to inserting a video so that it’s not that synchronous, like a zoom call type of thing. We also look at zoom calls where it’s more like a back and forth synchronous kind of conversation.

What we find is it really doesn’t matter. All of that gives some additional information to the other person that makes them more likely to agree. So it does give you more influence, not as much as in person, but more so than just a plain old email. And so it does seem to add something to actually either pick up the phone or do a zoom call or insert a video in.

Mallory: And it makes sense especially, the video piece is newer, but phone banking has been around for quite some time. So it makes sense that you think about everything from fundraising to political organizing. That sort of the tiers of ways that these organizations have been using influence from canvassing and for everyone who’s oh, it’s not uncomfortable saying no.

I Think about the amount of times that you pretended to be on a phone call walking past a canvasser. That’s I think that’s something that really indicates how uncomfortable we are saying no to folks, right? at that moment. 

Vanessa: Exactly. And there’s actual research on this. It’s some of my favorite research where they set up two different booths on a street and they measured how far away people walked from these boosts.

One had a person behind it asking for things. One just had pamphlets, right? So you didn’t actually have to say no to a person. And when they measured, how far away people walked much farther away from this booth where they might have to say no to another person. It is incredibly uncomfortable to have to say NO.

Mallory: Wow. That is fascinating. I went to the University of Michigan for undergraduate, and one of my favorite canvassers would hand out flyers saying, will you throw this away for me? But the garbage cans were pretty far away and you would get the flyer and you’d be like Wait, how do you do that? You got this into my hand so swiftly.

In relation to this ‘no’ component. You talk about some really interesting components in your book around the relationship between influence and whether or not somebody takes that action again, whether they said no, or yes, the first time and the different components of that.

This is a super relevant conversation to fundraisers because there’s a lot of conversation around lapsed donors and donor retention. I think a lot of assumptions made in our space around “This person said no last time,so we shouldn’t ask them again”. So talk to me a little bit about that component of what you’ve heard.

Vanessa: That’s right. And this is another case where we studied people’s intuitions about what happens once someone says no to you. And we looked at what actually happens when someone says no to you the first time. And so what we did is we brought participants into a lab study and we had them go out and ask people for two things.

So the first thing they asked them for was just something simple “Will you mail a letter?” And then the second thing was “Will you loan me your phone?”, or another sort of simple type of favor? And we varied the favors. And what we did is we said “If someone says, no, how likely do you think they would be to say yes to your follow-up requests?”.

And most people thought, once someone says, no once, they’re going to say no again, right? “This is the type of person who says no, so I don’t anticipate that they’re going to change their answer to a second request”. But then when they actually went out and asked people two things, the people who said no, the first time, we’re actually more likely to say yes to the second request, because I actually felt pretty bad saying no the first time.

So rather than being an indicator that this is a permanent state that this person is never going to agree to my request, in fact, it was an indicator that actually, it was a situational circumstantial thing. “In that moment, I couldn’t do that thing, maybe I didn’t have something to give”, right? Then maybe I didn’t have time to talk right then, but that didn’t mean that, down the road, I wouldn’t be willing to go ahead and revisit that conversation, or I might actually have more time or more to give later on.

Mallory: Okay. I love this because this relates to this other piece that you talk about in the book that I love. You talk about how difficult it is for us to say no. And then you rightly assume where the reader’s mind might take them then, which is that I never want to ask for anything again, because I’m making folks uncomfortable saying no, but then you say, but actually the thing is it’s not just about people feeling awkward saying no, it’s that they really want to say yes. And that it actually contributes to this critically important part of our identity to say yes. So talk to me about that.

Vanessa: That’s right. I do think when it comes to things like seeking donations and especially things like asking for help and asking for favors, the last thing I want the takeaway to be is that “Oh, I don’t want to ask for things because people find it so hard to say no”.And in fact, what winds up happening is that in the moment, people don’t want to say no, because at the end of the day, we want to be good people. We want to feel like good people. We want to look like good people. We want to maintain relationships. 

So there are all sorts of things underlying that difficulty saying no htat are actually quite positive and keep us bound with other people. So once we agree and that moment, even if it is because we’re put on the spot and feel like we can’t find the words to say, no, we feel pretty good. Because we just demonstrated that we’re good people who help other people. We showed somebody else that we’re helpful and we help somebody out.

And that just feels good. We get what’s called a warm glow from helping. I definitely don’t think it means that we shouldn’t be asking people for things. In fact, it just means that people are more likely to agree than we tend to think. And then pretty quickly after they agree, even if they just couldn’t say no, they’re going to feel good about it. And then we’re going to walk away feeling good. 

Mallory: I love that. And I think that’s such a good and important reframe for fundraisers. I want to just hit on one other piece of the fundraiser influence component, which is gender. You talk about women and those who identify as women in particular and the implications, or additional assumptions perhaps made about asking for things. So talk to me because 75% of those who work in the nonprofit sector are women. And so I think there are some pretty big sector wide implications as we see how the data shows up for women in particular. 

Vanessa: Yeah. You may be familiar with some of Linda Babcock’s research. So she has that book Women Don’t Ask, which was a pretty popular book. And one of the things she talks about in that book is that we don’t feel comfortable asking for things in many cases, but we do feel comfortable asking if it’s on behalf of somebody else, if it fits this almost communal prescriptive idea, that we are helpful people who are asking on behalf of another person.

Then that makes us feel a little bit more comfortable. And so that’s one way to think about it. Another thing I find in my research, I actually don’t find gender differences and how likely people are to agree to help you, if you’re a woman or to donate, if you’re asking as a woman, I also don’t find differences and our predictions of how likely it is that we’ll get a yes if we’re women, everyone seems to underestimate whether we’ll get a yes, but one of the important things to keep in mind is that the fact that we underestimate, whether we’re going to get a yes as women, it can mean something different than for men. 

So women are very concerned about rocking the boat and if they feel like they’re going to get a rejection, they may be less likely to ask. That might contribute to this discomfort we feel with asking. I think it is especially important to know that actually your ideas about how you’re going to be judged for asking, your ideas about how likely it is to be rejected, right? If you ask might be off and likely the story is much more positive than you think. I think that can be especially empowering for women who will already come into it. Sometimes not wanting to rock the boat and ask.

Mallory: Okay. I really appreciate those components. So before we shift into talking about donors and funders and their influence, what are the top three takeaways you would want fundraisers to really hear and understand around their influence in terms of moving money into their organization?

Vanessa: I think number one is not to assume that other people’s default is to say no. To go into situations assuming people do want to feel like helpful people. They do want to be helpful. And I think going into it with that attitude and assuming actually many people will say yes is a really helpful sort of empowering thing.

Another really important takeaway is how you ask. It’s a lot, you establish more trust and more social connection when you ask through richer media, whether it’s in person or even over the phone or over zoom, but it also makes it harder for someone to say no, or figure out the nitty gritty in ways that they feel comfortable.

And so it’s a good idea. Just mix and match some of these media so that you’re utilizing the advantages of rich media. You’re developing that relationship, that trust, that social connection, but you’re also not putting people on the spot. So you’re also giving them some space and utilizing email as well. 

Mallory: I love that, hank you so much. I think there are so many helpful tools for fundraisers to take away around this topic. So I really appreciate all your work in this area. So let’s just wrap up with having you tell folks where they can find you and I’ll make sure there are links for the book and everything below.

And then if you’d like to highlight a nonprofit that is near and dear to your heart, we love to invite our guests to do that as well.

Vanessa: So you can find me at my website, which is www.vanessabohns.com. And you can also follow me on @profbohns on Twitter and @profbohns at Instagram. Of course, the book can be found anywhere, Amazon, your local bookshop, et cetera.

And actually I would love to highlight a scientific organization that I love, which is the Open Science Framework they’ve made really big strides in fixing the replicability crisis that we’ve been having in psychology. And I think they do a lot of important work for science and making sure that all the kinds of research findings that I’m talking to you about now are actually replicable and people can check the data and that there’s not a bunch of bunk science going around. So that would be a great organization to donate. 

Mallory: Amazing! Thank you. We’ll connect folks with them as well. Thank you so much for joining me today and for having this conversation. 

Vanessa: Thank you so much.

Part ii

Mallory: Welcome back everyone to part two of this amazing conversation with Vanessa Bohns, we have just been talking about in part one about fundraisers and the influence they have, and that you have more influence than you think. And I wanted to separate this series or this into two parts, because I think the other really eye opening part of your book for me was around power and influence and how much people in power underestimate their influence and the relationship between casual suggestions from someone in power and the fact that leads a lot of folks to just do the thing and this sort of complete disconnect sometimes between what’s happening in the moment. I think this has huge implications for the nonprofit sector and fundraisers in general, because of the power dynamic that is set up inherently.

Vanessa: Absolutely. One of my colleagues, Adam Glinsky has this great quote that I love to steal from him, which is ‘when you’re in a position of power, your whisper can sound like a shout’. And I just think that really sums up what it’s like to have power. It’s not just those times when you’re formally telling people what to do or going on the offensive and really trying to influence someone in a very formal way.

But it’s also, the little comments that you make, the subtle things, the throwaway remarks, all those things land a lot heavier and a lot weightier on other people who are not in positions of power than we tend to realize. Exactly the time when we are in positions of power that people find it hardest to say no to us, they take the things that we say the most seriously.

They’re the least likely to speak up against us and say, “Actually, maybe that’s not the greatest idea”. And at the same time, one of the fascinating things that I uncovered when I was doing research for this book is that, it’s also a time when we’re least likely to be aware of those dynamics. It’s a time when you would think you’re in a position of power, how much influence you have.

But in fact, there are these psychological aspects, the psychological consequences of having power that make us less likely to recognize the times when we say something. And it’s impacted another person in a way that maybe we wish we hadN’T. 

Mallory: Tell me a little bit more about that, those psychological implications  of power.

Vanessa: Yeah. So one of them is that we’re simply less likely to take the perspective of other people when we’re in a position of power than when we are not in a position of power. And if you think about this, it might sound bad at first, but it’s actually quite just logical. So if you’re in a low power position, you really need to figure out what’s going on in the high power position in people’s heads, right? If I need to get resources from someone, the person with the resources is the one with power. And so I really want to think about what motivates them. But if you’re the one who’s in power, you just don’t have to worry about those things as much. And so you just naturally don’t consider other people’s perspectives as much.

You can say something and not worry for an hour later about whether someone took it the wrong way. So we’re just less likely to do that. Because of that, we may not realize that someone did take something we said the wrong way that someone. That someone really didn’t want to do something we asked them to do, but felt uncomfortable saying no.

So that’s one aspect of having power. Another aspect is that when we’re in a position of power, it’s a lot easier for us to say no, we don’t feel as constrained by the situation as people in lower positions of power, we just have more autonomy. And one of the problems with that is that we assume that other people also have that kind of autonomy.

We figure if we can say no to things, so can other people. And so again, we assume that if someone doesn’t want to do something, if someone thinks that our direction doesn’t make sense. They’ll just speak up and say it because that’s what we would do. But of course, when there is that power dynamic, that’s not what people feel comfortable doing.

And so in the end, when people are taking our words the most seriously, we’re the least aware of that and monitoring ourselves the least. 

Mallory: Wow. Okay. There are so many components that I think are really interesting to explore. One thing is just in terms of thinking about power in general, right?

So we know there are all these structures of power in our society. And I would say most fundraisers would say that their funders have more power than them. And because they have financial resources and the nonprofit needs financial resources, in my course, which is called Power Partners, I talk on coach a lot around how to show up as a fundraiser at that table, embodied and empowered and really everything that you are bringing to the table, which is a tremendous opportunity, a ton of assets that are really valuable and to really try to shift the power dynamic in that room.

And what you said is really interesting. I do this thing in my course called Funder Lenses. Where I pull on design thinking principles to help fundraisers really see their organization through the eyes of different types of funders. And it’s really interesting what you said at which I had not connected before, which the thing I say to fundraisers is “Look, we live and breathe our organizations, it’s impossible for someone outside of our organization to come in and see everything that we see”. So we have to connect to where they’re at and what they care about and the way they view the world and the change they’re trying to make, because that’s what’s going to actually help us find that alignment.

And so it’s really interesting what you’re saying around power. The way it impacts our ability to see things and in other perspectives. It really highlights the importance of translating the work that you’re doing, aligning the work that you’re doing through the lens of the funder, which I’ve also found to be just a really key component of fundraising, which I think is so interesting.

And then the other thing that you’re saying that just has massive implications is there are all these narratives in the nonprofit sector around restricted and unrestricted funding. And inside the nonprofit sector, I feel like a lot of the blame gets put on the funders for restricting their funding. And when it comes to foundations and grants, often there are more official restrictions of fundings, but I have felt for a long time that we often, as the folks inside our organizations, perpetuate the restricted funding narrative by hearing pieces of ideas from funders and saying “Oh they really want to fund that truck”. And it’s what they actually really want to fund is the impact of your organization. And they just said that really quickly because they think the truck is what makes the impact, but you could tell them a totally different story about how their funds could actually be better leveraged to make a bigger impact that would shift how they start to see things and then whether or not the funding is actually restricted or unrestricted. What do you think about that?

Vanessa: Yeah, I think all these are such interesting points. And I think for sure, where you started about this idea that when you’re the ones seeking funds from this other party, and they’re the ones who have the resources, they’re not going to make the effort to really try to figure out where their resources are going to go. They’re expecting you to make that effort, right? For you to make the connection for you to explain it. And they’re just not going to work as hard. That’s not the position that they’re in.

So you really do have to work extra hard to get your perspective out there to make that connection right. And not expect them to do the work. And I think in the same way, they may come up with just a little idea, like this truck, this particular thing, that’s the first thing that pops into their head. And I think that it’s really easy to run with that and see that as the one concrete thing that was put out there, clearly that’s something they really want as opposed to getting a little bit deeper and understanding the motivation behind that.

Why is it that they focused on that particular kind of thing? And this reminds me actually, of something I also talk about in the book, the difference between taking perspective and getting perspective. And so taking perspective is basically just trying to get into somebody else’s head, but doing it by searching your own head, your own previous experiences and not actually asking what that person really wants or is thinking and getting perspective, which is much more effective at figuring out what someone actually wants, is asking them. Being explicit. What is it about this particular truck or whatever it might be that is really getting at your motivations? And actually finding out from them what their sort of deeper needs are.

Mallory: You want to come teach inside my course? I love that. We talk about this too.

And one of the questions I encourage fundraisers to ask is to say, what inspires you most about that project? Or I just heard you say that about the truck. Why does that excite you in terms of why you would want to invest in that? What are your beliefs about the impact of the truck? Because the truck is just the truck, but what does the truck mean to them? So I love the way that you’re talking about that.

Vanessa: Exactly. And it reminds me very much also of courses that I teach on negotiations, where we talk about integrative negotiation, because in some ways this is a sort of negotiation, right? And if you really want to come up with a solution that benefits both parties, you want to be open about the underlying needs and motivations. Not just the specific item that you’re negotiating over. So what does that item mean to the other party? What does it mean to you? What other things could be done creatively that would have that same meeting?

Mallory: Okay. I love that. And because of the funders lack of awareness around the power that they are exuding in a conversation with the fundraiser. Does that mean they don’t have that perception or recognize that? Does that mean that in fact, should a fundraiser say “That’s a really interesting idea, but I was curious to talk to you about X, Y, and Z…”, should a fundraiser challenge them? That would feel for them like they are in fact even being challenged because they haven’t necessarily recognized that dynamic in the first place. 

Vanessa: I do think it makes sense in that case, I wouldn’t even think of it as challenging, but just to ask follow-up questions, right? To understand more about the meaning of what that thing that happened to pop out is for that person.

I think they almost expected it. To get some pushback. I think most people in positions like that are expecting a conversation, a back and forth. But I think that often when we’re asking for something, we’re so focused on getting something on, getting that yes. And having success and not being rejected once we hear one little thing that makes us think “Okay, this person would be amenable to giving this”.

We don’t want to lose that. And we worry that if we challenge all of a sudden, the whole thing is going to blow up and it’s going to end in us having nothing. But that’s usually not the way it goes. Usually you can ask for things in ways that really further the conversation and open up the conversation. And isn’t an aggressive back and forth distributive kind of thing where it’s like the truck or nothing. That’s usually not how people are thinking about things. 

Mallory: I think that’s such an important point and has certainly been my experience in fundraising and this also ties back to how nonprofits build authentic and deep relationships with their funders.

I think you bring up the negotiation piece. I actually think it is really valuable. I can imagine that some fundraisers might be cringing a little bit at the thought that what they’re doing is negotiation. But I think the reality is negotiation is one of those terms that has this stigma attached to it.

But really if you break it down to the point it’s about finding a mutually beneficial solution or opportunity. That’s what this is really all about. And you had said earlier in part, when I think about this it isn’t some like one time thing, right? We’re not cold calling, just trying to close this $25 gift before midnight, right?

With these major donors, these big partners, corporate sponsors. The goal is to build long-term relationships. And so when you’re doing that, when you’re really trying to find that middle ground, that’s going to feel good for everyone moving forward. It takes more of this meeting at the table with both people feeling empowered to have this conversation.

Vanessa: That’s right. And when I teach negotiations the first day I asked people how many people really just hate negotiating. And most people in the class will say “I hate negotiating”. And a lot of it is because they’re thinking of it as this distributed sort of thing. And if you think of it exactly, as you said, as two parties, trying to find a mutually beneficial decision in this moment, and hopefully a long-term arrangement, it’s not so difficult to palletize the idea that we’re negotiating. 

One of the classic examples that some of your listeners may have heard if you’ve ever taken a negotiation class is the example of these two sisters who are both making a recipe and there they each call for an orange, right? And they each are squabbling over the orange and at the end, they decide to cut the orange in half and one of them takes the orange and squeezes the juice into her recipe and the other one peels the orange and uses the zest from the peel and her recipe. And so if they had actually explored the underlying motives behind why they needed the orange one would have had all the juice and had everything they needed for the recipe. And it would have been a beneficial situation for everyone, but because they treated it as this fixed pie and this distributed sort of situation, they missed out on a great opportunity. And I think, thinking about ways in which you can open up a discussion so that you can see those kinds of integrative solutions is really important.

Mallory: I think that is so interesting. And I hadn’t heard that story before, but yeah, as you were saying it, I was like, yeah, but their perception is it’s a zero sum game. They’re approaching that conversation from this scarcity mindset. And I think in the nonprofit sector, we do that so often. As well as what you said about, we don’t want to miss this opportunity, right?

We feel like the funder would give a truck, wouldn’t it be better to start there? And then maybe next year I can talk to them about a bigger gift instead of just taking that moment to explore a little deeper and recognize that maybe the funding Isn’t even that attached to the truck, they don’t know all of the different components of your organization that are going to make that impact.

And so I think that is so interesting. And I do want to highlight for folks, I hope they read your whole book, but one of the things I just found fascinating was some of the stories you told around power and influence and the way that, when we think we have a choice and when we don’t, and you said up a piece of this earlier, too, around how because people in power feel a fair amount of autonomy, they assume that other people feel that sense of autonomy too.

And you share this story in the book around this basketball coach who had his team practice and do this free throw contest or something and how the coach thought it was like this optional exercise. And all of the players were like, actually, when your coach tells you to do something, you do it.

And so there are all these structural power dynamics in society based on sometimes historical contexts. True power dynamics. I would feel the same way the coach tells me to do something. That’s why you’re there, you are the coach, right? You think you listened to them. And so I think there’s this narrative in the non-profit sector around the relationship often between the funders and the nonprofits. Sometimes we don’t even realize the sort of hoops we’re jumping through unnecessarily because we aren’t having these conversations. 

Vanessa: Yeah. And I think it’s definitely possible that in these situations I might throw out something like “Oh, maybe I could fund this” and I want it to be genuinely helpful.

I don’t want my donation to be useless. But I assume that if that wasn’t a great idea, someone will tell me, they’ll push back. So there is this assumption that the other person has autonomy. The other person is going to come back with a better idea or shape this decision-making. And I think in a lot of cases, as we talked about, we just jump on that and we don’t push back and we don’t necessarily see this optimal solution that could have been right there if  a little more conversation was done. 

Mallory: If there are funders listening to this, do you have suggestions for them in terms of their own awareness around the potential power dynamic and what they can do to perhaps be more aware of some of the dynamics in play? 

Vanessa: I think it helps to be clear that I really do want to make a contribution that’s the most helpful. And maybe you also have another aspect that you’re going for. And I want my name on something and I want something that creates some positive PR whatever it is. I think being explicit about the sort of underlying reasons for a specific thing is the way to get to the optimal solution as opposed to throwing something out there.

And even if you do throw something out there trying to back up yourself and explore, like, why is it that this is so appealing to me? And then also making it a conversation. Actually explicitly saying “I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you see a better way to solve these needs or to meet these needs of mine, please share that so that it can be more of a conversation”.

Mallory: Okay. I love that. And it does beg a little question for me, which is you talk in your book a lot about the things we do to avoid embarrassment. And I wonder about certain funders or donors and their ability to tap into their true desire to be philanthropists or to invest in certain things and even their own awareness or how you think someone might think or feel saying something.

I want my name on that thing. Certain philanthropists have no problem saying that, but what you’re talking about, highlights this dance that’s done in philanthropy and fundraising where no one is fully saying the things that they want. But because so many people have learned this dance, they’re getting it.

And I think what you and I both want is more transparency or at least I’ll speak for myself. What I want is more transparency in these conversations to say it doesn’t need to be a bad thing to say. We want these things, but we need to talk about them and we need to not have a hidden agenda, because then we’re not going to actually find opportunities that are mutually beneficial and we’re going to keep buying trucks and we’re not going to solve these real global issues that it’s time to solve. But I’m curious, what do you think about that?

Vanessa: Yeah, I agree. I would love more transparency and people to be more explicit and just basically communicate more clearly about the things that they really want. But I also completely agree that people, especially if it’s I want my name on something, they’re often embarrassed to admit that.

And I think there’s things that actually can be done on both sides to mitigate that one thing is that if you’re actually asking for fun, You can say a lot of people like to have their name on it for this reason. So you’re basically saying this is a really common thing. We see it all the time. You’re making it explicit, but you’re not making it about them.

So it doesn’t feel like you’re targeting them and saying “Oh, you might want your name on something because you’re that kind of person”. It’s, “not many people like this. And so this is something that would give you that opportunity”. This is another sort of negotiation tactic, but something even more subtle.

If you don’t want to go, the explicit communication kind of way is to give packages of options. And each of those options changes one little thing. some of the options have a name attached, right? Some of the options have some other feature that a lot of donors tend to like, and then you look at the ones that they’re most interested in and you could get a feel that “Okay, these are the kinds of things that they like and these commonalities in those things are”. They all are situations where they can put their name out there, or they’re all situations that come with this package. So there are ways I think, to get that information and also save face for the other person, but in an ideal world, I do think because there is this dance when everyone knows what the subtext is, that it would be great if people just felt comfortable saying “this is something I like”. 

Mallory: Yes, I totally agree. And also so much of what you’re talking about to me makes it clear why sometimes it’s also easier to have these conversations with corporate funders or foundation funders. I’m thinking back to what you said in part one around how women in particular are more comfortable advocating for something when they’re advocating for something else.

And I think about the level of transparency. Sometimes that happens in a corporate sponsorship meeting around and I’ve even had marketing folks. I had this VP of marketing once tell me “I’m so sorry to ask this, but can you tell me how many impressions we would get on that? Because I have to report back to our CEO about this investment”, and I was like, “you’re so sorry to ask?”

I want this to be beneficial to your marketing. No, ask me all the things. And so there is that level of discomfort that I just feel like we need to create more space for and say “it’s okay to have a personal reason for doing this”. There does need to be that component to really find that mutual benefit.

Otherwise we fall into the like martyrdom route, which isn’t good for the sector. It’s not good for giving all of those things okay. I could talk to you forever, but I want to be conscious of time. So let’s just wrap up with having you tell folks where they can find you and I’ll make sure there are links for the book and everything below.

And then if you’d like to highlight a nonprofit that is near and dear to your heart, we love to invite our guests to do that as well. 

Vanessa: So you can find me at my website, which is www.vanessabohns.com. And you can also follow me on @profbohns on Twitter and @profbohns at Instagram. Of course, the book can be found anywhere, Amazon, your local bookshop, etcetera.

And actually I would love to highlight a scientific organization that I love, which is the Open Science Framework. They’ve made really big strides in fixing the replicability crisis that we’ve been having in psychology. And I think they do a lot of important work for science and making sure that all the kinds of research findings that I’m talking to you about now are actually replicable and people can check the data and that there’s not a bunch of bunk science going around. So that would be a great organization to donate. 

Mallory: Amazing! Thank you. We’ll connect folks with them as well. Thank you so much for joining me today and for having this conversation. 

Vanessa: Thank you so much.

26: You Have More Influence Than You Think Fundraiser Addition with Vanessa Bohns
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