Ben Franklin: Founding Father of the Fundraising Ask?

We’ve long lived in a do-it-yourself culture.

Though we teach our children the value of teamwork from a young age--we also tend to see independence as a sign of strength and capability.

Conversely, we could as easily view those who constantly ask for favors and help as needy, selfish, or helpless.  Maybe this is why we’re so uncomfortable asking for help: we don’t want others to think we’re greedy or weak.

Yet despite the value we place on self-sufficiency--and the anxieties we have about needing a helping hand--a funny thing happens when we reach out to ask for help.

It’s called the Ben Franklin Effect.  It turns out the man we commemorate for his many discoveries in physics, technology, and political science may have also discovered an important key to donor psychology.

Flipping enemies into friends--one favor at a time

Before he became one of the most important figures in our country, Benjamin Franklin was one of 17 children born to very poor parents.  Realistically, Franklin had very little chance of ever becoming the legend he is today. 

But what our Founding Father lacked in wealth, opportunity, and station, he made up for in charisma and sheer social engineering skill.  And according to scholars, these qualities are what allowed him to eventually skyrocket from his humble beginnings into the stratosphere of American history.

Simply put: Ben Franklin talked his way from nothing to being one of the most celebrated men in the United States. 

Luckily for us, he wrote down exactly how he did it.  One tale in particular teaches us an important lesson about how reality can differ greatly from perception--especially when it comes to asking for help.

In his autobiography, Franklin describes a technique he used with great success to gain influence and favor with those around him.  

In 1736, he was being considered for a position in the General Assembly.  A certain member of that assembly opposed Franklin’s appointment--someone, Franklin says, had the wealth and education to ensure him a considerable amount of political power in the future.  This was someone whose support Franklin had to have if he was to succeed in politics.

But Franklin certainly didn’t want to compromise himself or become a lapdog to do it.  Instead, Franklin asked this member if he could borrow a rare and valuable book he knew the member to own. 

As one book-lover to another, this member was happy to share his treasure with Franklin, and after a time, Franklin returned the volume along with a very sincere letter of gratitude.

From that day, Franklin and his political adversary were close friends, with his one-time opponent readily assisting Franklin for the rest of his life. 

With this small exchange, Ben Franklin discovered a curious side-effect of asking for help: despite the anxieties many of us have about asking for favors or help, psychology tells us people instinctively take a shine to those they’ve helped in the past--especially when the help was met with gratitude.

Or as Franklin more eloquently explains it, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

In fundraising, the Ben Franklin Effect appears to support many trends we see in donor behavior and the best practices we use to inspire trust and boost retention.

Ask and you shall receive. 

Nothing hurts your effort more than failing to make a clear, immediate, and repeated ask.  This is often the most difficult part for fundraisers because of that negative perception of asking as “begging.” 

But if the Franklin Effect teaches us anything, it’s that we need to totally change our perception of “the ask” and how we may think the listener receives it.

Franklin found people were more likely to help him and like him if they’d helped him before.  This can almost be viewed like an investment: if I invest my time, effort, and attention in helping you accomplish a goal, I might naturally see you as having greater value to me because I “invested” in you. 

Psychologists also theorize the “naïve realism” that causes us to sincerely believe our own biased perception is totally objective also causes us to trick ourselves into forming opinions on other people.  In doing a favor or offering help to another person, we might instinctively begin to believe that person is good--why would we ever reach out to help someone who wasn’t?

Whatever psychology is at work here, donor responses to fundraising asks seem to reflect Franklin’s findings. 

Acquiring first time donors can be tricky, and getting a new donor to give a second gift can be even trickier.  But once you’ve gotten past the second gift hurdle, it seems donors are increasingly willing to continue donating and in larger amounts.

A 2016 study by the Fundraising Effectiveness Project found only 2 in 10 new donors to a nonprofit will make a second gift, but interestingly, 6 in 10 new donors will make a third gift.  Just as Franklin found, it looks as if donors, too, are much more likely to stick with your organization for the long haul the more they’ve sent help in the past.

Which came first?  The thought or the action?

It’s a nice story, isn’t it?  But zoomed out, something probably seems a little fishy.  Can we really believe asking someone--even an enemy--for a favor is all it takes to make a lifelong friend?

Yes.  In fact, the logic behind this transaction is the basis for an entire spectrum of modern day psychological therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a powerful tool used by mental health professionals to help patients modify their feelings toward different things through adjusting their actions toward them. 

For example, if someone suffers from crippling social anxiety, a psychologist works with him to confront crowded places and use different calming or stress-relieving techniques to gradually lessen the fear the patient has in these spaces.

This therapy style is based on the idea that if we can’t change our feelings in order change our behavior, we can change our behavior to modify our feelings.  This strategy is so effective it’s now the standard treatment for a wide range of social and behavioral disorders. 

Applied to nonprofit fundraising and donor psychology, it could provide serious insight into what motivates a new donor to transition into a dedicated lifelong supporter of a charity.  

Perhaps just making an initial gift or two alone gradually convinces us to adopt a more and more positive attitude toward the organizations we’ve helped, explaining the steadily increasing retention numbers with each donation.

And don’t forget that thank-you letter!

Let’s not ignore that nice letter Franklin gave to his adversary when he returned the book, either.  That’s an important part of what we know makes those who help us feel appreciated, acknowledged, and much more likely to view us positively enough to help again. 

Any fundraiser will tell you that your best shot of cutting through the initial gift drop-off is an outstanding and personable donor acknowledgment letter--exactly the kind Ben Franklin gave the assemblyman after returning his beloved book.

A recent study on the effects of gratitude showed saying thank-you has a significant impact on the recipient’s overall attitude in the months following the thank-you.  Not only does gratitude increase the recipient’s happy feelings by 10%, but it actually reduces depressed feelings overall by 35%. 

Just by expressing sincere gratitude to someone who has helped you, it seems you’re doing more than making him feel happy.  You’re actually easing negativity in his life.  Isn’t that awesome?  No wonder the assemblyman and our returning donors are willing to help again--each time they help and we express our appreciation, those who help us go about their day happier and with less stress than before.

Making friends means never, ever being afraid to ask for help

Asking for help is hard. 

At the core, our anxieties are about vulnerability.  We are afraid to open ourselves up at the risk of rejection or judgment.  We’re afraid offend other people by appearing pushy or incapable of solving our own problems.

But asking for help is a powerful thing.  When we show our vulnerability to others, we tell them we trust them. We also give them the opportunity to be heroes for us, and those positive feelings follow them and reshape their opinions of us for the better.

So don’t hold back with your donors.  They want to help you.  It feels good for them to help you.  And most importantly, if you allow anxiety to prevent you from asking for help, your donors will never know you need it in the first place.   You could be one solid ask and thank-you away from developing a long-term supportive relationship with your #1 donor.

But you don’t have to take it from us.  Take it from the guy who invented bifocals, figured out how lightning works, opened the first fire department, and came up with Daylight Savings Time.  He probably knows what he’s talking about.