How to Be an Agent of Change

I was surprised to see in recent weeks that a six-year-old book remains on the New York Times Best Seller List, recently at #3 among nonfiction paperbacks. The book is The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. It seems as though it has become its own best promoter, demonstrating what happens when an idea “tips.”

There are many ways that Gladwell’s concepts can be applied to capital campaign fundraising as word of mouth spreads throughout a community. We will look at just a few applications, focusing on the power of the message, how a few key people make all the difference, how group dynamics can make or break the effort, and what matters most. Gladwell believes that by understanding how tipping points are reached, we can deliberately use them to market organizations and lobby for social changes. In addition, we can use them to raise more money to be change-agents for nonprofit organizations.

The principle behind the “tipping point” is that when contagious behavior takes hold—not a multiplying effect but a geometric progression—an idea, trend, or cause will inevitably follow. Think back to the stadium “wave” that used to be so popular; just a few persevering people could influence tens of thousands to participate. As the subtitle states, little causes or changes can have a big effect.

The Power of the Message

When discussing messages–case statements, proposal letters, the content of a discussion—Gladwell is unequivocable that the content of the message matters. The message should move our prospect to action. It will do so only if it is memorable, and it will be memorable when it is personal and practical.

For example, a campaign theme statement could be that “sticky” (as in: will stick with your constituents) message: “Beacon for a Bright Future” (Salvation Army), “Our Hope for Today…and Tomorrow” (YMCA), “Expand the Circle of Care (Hospice) or “Double the Homes, Double the Hope” (Habitat for Humanity). Emotionally charged words that resonate with prospects are vital. One university used a key phrase from its school song, one that many graduates would have immediately recognized and embraced.

It all starts with the case statement that might be six, eight or ten pages long. From this “word bank,” you can draw the messages and imagery that you believe will prove to be sticky. The mission statement is another source for sticky content.

Experience has shown that when a cause resonates personally with a prospect, the chances for a gift go up. When someone’s life has been affected by cancer, for instance, the likelihood of a gift to a cancer-related cause is heightened. Look at the success of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in tipping its cause internationally.

Beyond being memorable, messages should be packaged in a simple way (such as the Komen pink ribbon). A good fundraiser is careful that the message isn’t overwhelmed by pretty colors and intricate design. Photographs that are large have greater impact; text that is unadorned can be read easily. The simple package also makes it easier to make changes since small changes can make a big difference in the impact of a message. In a recent Habitat for Humanity campaign, changing the case statement (after analysis of the Feasibility and Planning Study Report) to better reflect the important role of the volunteer helped to “tip” the effort over the goal.

Key People Make All the Difference

Gladwell groups his discussion of people under the heading “The Law of the Few.” These are the few people who help in three ways: they have many acquaintances and friends, have accumulated a great deal of information, or are infectious and empathetic.

Connectors. Paul Revere is cited in the book as the quintessential example of a connector. He has many social connections, moves between subcultures, has a significant ability to spread information and opens access to people in his networks. Connectors can spread an idea through multiple communities. Their presence makes an idea contagious. In other words, it’s who you know.

Recognizing the value of this type of person, every capital campaign leadership should have at least one social networker. It’s important to be able to spread our “sticky” message. Connectors act like social glue and increase our ability to spread messages. They are excellent at attracting volunteers.

Mavens. While Connectors are collectors of people, Mavens are collectors of information. They simply have the ability to accumulate knowledge of many things. When we find this person and tap into his or her data banks, then we have the information we need to both rapidly and broadly spread the message of our campaign.

In addition to being an information broker, Mavens want to be of service, to help solve other people’s problems. Among their knowledge base would be many of the people that will be your prospects. Imagine having access to a Maven’s Rolodex. Imagine all of the work you can forgo in developing a qualified prospect list.

What better person to have on the campaign leadership team? Perhaps the best attribute is that these people are early adopters of trends. When they adopt your organization, message and campaign, you know you’ve got a winner.

Salesmen. Gladwell uses the term Salesman for his third character, a term that I’m not very fond of because of the negative connotations that often are attached to the word. But there are sales characteristics at play in capital campaigns. Salespeople are accustomed to asking, can handle rejection and generally are successful in their endeavors—they are persuaders. They also are closers, so that they would be good at getting the gift.

Salespeople send out signals, good vibes that represent our message. They often act as cheerleaders, infecting crowds with an enthusiasm that comes from their hearts. Social epidemics and capital campaigns need these senders or ‘salesmen’ to be involved.

One of the important outcomes of the Feasibility and Planning Study that precedes a capital campaign is the discovery of these archetypes in the community.

Group Dynamics Create Power

The first aspect of group dynamics relates to what Gladwell calls the Power of Context. He suggests for example, that Paul Revere’s midnight ride might have been so successful because everyone was at home. If the ride had been made in mid-afternoon when men and women were working in fields, forests and shops, Gladwell posits, it might have failed to rouse the countryside.

Tipping occurs because humans are very sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of time and place where events occur. Changes in details in the immediate area can portend major shifts in attitudes since behavior is a function of social context. Little things really matter. A campaign rally, with some great news about large gifts, could tip a campaign.

Gladwell suggests that we overestimate the importance of character and underestimate the importance of situation or context. He sees character as a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests bound loosely on circumstances and context. He cites the example of cleaning up crime on New York City subways. The city did so by assiduously cleaning all graffiti from subway train cars. The clean cars—a condition or circumstance of an enhanced environment—led to reduced vandalism and crime.

One nonprofit is conducting a campaign to build a new building in an area where growth is just beginning to occur. As more homes are completed in the burgeoning suburbs, the greater should be the “tipping” of the campaign toward success.

A second aspect of group dynamics relates to the number of people involved in various activities. Gladwell believes that a focused group should not exceed 150 persons. In a campaign context, those 150 people might be the prospects for Leadership and Major gifts; large enough for capacity, but small enough to be manageable.

Research also shows that humans cannot generally care for more than about 15 relationships; sympathy groups average about 12. The lesson for a capital campaign may be that our campaign cabinet should be limited to 12-15 people, as should the volunteers in each division. While we do want many hands helping, a sense of smallness is important to be effective, to be powerfully bonded one to another in a great cause.

Tools to Use to Better Our Communities

We’re strongly influenced by immediate context and the personalities of those around us. Because of that, ideas, trends and social behavior can be greatly influenced. As Gladwell writes,

“there is a large measure of hopefulness…. Merely by manipulating the size of a group, we can dramatically improve its receptivity to new ideas. By tinkering with the presentation of information, we can significantly improve its stickiness. Simply by finding and reaching those few special people who hold so much social power, we can shape the course of social epidemics. In the end, Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.” (P. 259)

The same can be true for capital campaigns as we work to fulfill the missions of organizations that make a difference in our world.

Share this post