Philanthropic milkshake mistakes

Thanks to a reminder from Katya on her Nonprofit Marketing Blog, I finally went ahead and bought Clay Shirky’s most recent book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity and a Connected Age, which is about the digital age, the demise of TV, generosity, and the rise of interactive and user-generated content (among other things).

Clay tells an instructive story at the start of the book, one that got me thinking that most conversations about philanthropy leave out the central question – what problem does giving the gift solve for the donor?

Once upon a time, Clay recounts, McDonald’s wanted to improve sales of milkshakes, so they hired a handful of researchers.  Most of the researchers went out and asked customers what they wanted more or less of in the milkshake (sweetness, flavor, temperature, containers, etc) – which sounds like a good, customer-centric and solution-centric approach, right?  Wrong.

One of the researchers, Gerald Berstell, did something different.   Gerald “chose to ignore the shakes themselves and study the customers instead…

He sat in a McDonalds for eighteen hours one day, observing who bought milkshakes and at what time.  One surprising discovery was that many milkshakes were purchased early in the day…the buyers were always alone, they rarely bought anything besides a shake, and they never consumed the shakes in the store.

Berstell’s insight (explained in this Harvard Business Review article) was to ignore the milkshake as a product and instead ask, “What job is a customer hiring that milkshake to do at eight A.M.?”  And so Berstell understood the milkshake for what it really was: a portable, slow-to consume, not-too-messy breakfast – a core insight that all of the other researchers missed entirely.

When we discuss sales strategies – philanthropic or otherwise – we inevitably focus on the milkshake: is our story compelling, clear, memorable, and sticky?  Does it resonate with the worldview of our customer?  What tactics are we using for outreach, referrals, etc?

All good questions, but if we stop here we’re making a milkshake mistake.  We have to ask: what job is the customer hiring this philanthropic gift to do (in their lives)?

Being an effective philanthropic fundraiser is challenging for a host of reasons, not least of which because there’s no obvious product that’s being sold, so it’s so easy to forget about (or underplay) the fact that giving is serving a very real, very tangible purpose for the donor.

A good test to see if you’re paying enough attention to this: if you think everyone is giving for the same reason and/or if you think the reason they’re giving is because they believe in your mission then you haven’t dug deep enough.

Clay tells an instructive story at the start of the book, one that got me thinking that most conversations about philanthropy leave out the central question – what problem does giving the gift solve for the donor?

Once upon a time, Clay recounts, McDonalds wanted to improve sales of milkshakes, so they hired a handful of researchers.  Most of the researchers went out and asked customers what they wanted more or less of in the milkshake (sweetness, flavor, temperature, containers, etc) – which sounds like a good, customer-centric and solution-centric approach, right?  Wrong.

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2 Responses to Philanthropic milkshake mistakes

  1. Martha says:

    “…giving is serving a very real, very tangible purpose for the donor.” is a VERY useful idea, thanks! It reminds me of another very useful idea I came across recently on a Harvard Business Review website blog written by M. Schrage, research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business. His idea, as communicated in the blog entitled ‘The One Question All Innovators Need to Ask’ was, “What does this innovation want you to become?”

    Both your milkshake story and the HBR innovation story ask us to investigate the human purposes of actions and objects, not only by asking people questions, but also by observing their behaviour. Could we merge the two ideas by asking, “What does our work for this cause want our donors to become, beyond becoming simple donors? ” Would related observations of donor behaviour be indicated?

  2. Martha says:

    here is the link for the HBR blog post by Michael Schrage:
    http://blogs.hbr.org/schrage/2010/11/the-one-question-all-innovator.html

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