If the only time I hear from you

If the only time I hear from you is…

…when you want me to look at something you wrote

…or to help you get something published

…or when you’re looking for an introduction to someone

…or want to promote your competition/website/product/cause

…or when you’re looking for your next gig

…or when you’re asking me for money…

…well it might work once or twice but it won’t work out in the end.  Eventually this is going to be a dead end relationships.  And there aren’t a lot of markers on that road saying “WARNING: DEAD END AHEAD.”

No, you’ll just smack into the wall and crash.

Here’s how I can help

When trying to console someone, I’ve often found myself, at a loss for what to do, saying “Let me know how I can help.”  Today, in just such a same situation, a friend modeled a different kind of behavior.  She said,  “Why don’t I….” and offered up a few very specific ideas of things she’d like to do to help.

This feels like the difference between not-so-helpful generic feedback (“Great job!”) and very useful, specific positive feedback (“What I particularly liked was when you…”).

Specifics help in all situations, especially when someone is feeling a sense of loss.  Usually, a big part of the gift you give is taking away someone else’s burden of making a decision.

Predictably Irrational

Last week I talked some about the “mental models” we carry around to simplify the world.  One of the most powerful, underlying mental models we carry around is about rationality – that people are predominately rational, and that behave (by and large) in a rational fashion.

While I’m incredibly interested in the field of behavioral economics, I must admit that I still cling to the vestiges of beliefs held earlier in my life, that people are primarily rational with a hint of irrationality thrown in every now and again.

But what if people are primarily irrational and, even more powerful, what if they’re predictably irrational?  That’s the question MIT economist Dan Ariely asks in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. What’s so fun about this book is that Prof Ariely  takes a simple, objective, experimental approach to see how people really act instead of believing in how they’re supposed to ask.  Here’s an example from early in the book that floored me (my summary, not his):

A few years ago, Dan Ariely received an email from The Economist magazine offering three subscription options:

  1. A year of access to The Economist website for $59
  2. A year of receiving the print edition of The Economist for $125
  3. A year of receiving the print edition of The Economist plus free access to the website for $125

You’ll notice immediately that options two and three both cost $125. Prof. Airely figured the clever folks at the Economist had their reasons, and he wanted to understand them.  So he tested this offer by offering it to 100 of his students.  The result? 16 of his students selected the web access and 84 selected the print + online option.  No one chose option 2 (print only).

Hard to know what to make of that result on its own; maybe option 3 really is so appealing that a rational, value-maximizing decision maker should choose it more than 4 out of 5 times.

To test this theory, Prof. Airely ran the experiment a second time, but with only two options:

  1. A year of access to The Economist website for $59
  2. A year of receiving the print edition of The Economist plus free access to the website for $125

If the students were essentially rational actors, the removal of the option that no one chose (option 2) would have no impact.  How could it matter to remove an irrelevant option?  But it mattered a lot.  68 students now chose the web-only access, and 32 chose print+web.  Removing an irrelevant option shifted the preference for web-only access from 16% to 68% of the students. That’s a powerful result.

Put simply, we’re terrible at ascertaining the absolute value of things; we only seem to be able to hone in on relative value.  So the impact of the irrelevant option was to communicate that the original 3rd option (print + web) was a “great deal.”

Depending on where you sit and what you’re hoping to accomplish, you can use this one insight in lots of different ways.  The first step is to realize that when you’re helping someone make a decision, the available options and what people don’t choose may be as or more important than what people do choose.

Your reputation

Your reputation has a center of gravity, inertia, and momentum.

The center of gravity is the expectation people have about how to judge you, and how to judge what you just did or didn’t do, based on their past experiences with you.  It pulls perception of each new thing you do towards that center.

Momentum is the tendency of your reputation to build in the same direction – whatever direction that is – for two reasons.  First, because people want to affirm their biases, so they look for supporting data.  Second because consistently acting in a certain way makes it more likely that you’ll consistently act in a certain way.  (Want to be happier?  Smile more.)

Inertia is the resistance to changes in your reputation, the challenge we all face in redirecting the path of our reputation and, naturally, our own perceptions of ourselves.

Three levels of belief

I had a great conversation last week with someone starting a new nonprofit who is aiming to raise $100,000 next year.

We ended up talking a lot about how to get started on this seemingly audacious fundraising goal.  Interestingly, we didn’t spend much time on the obvious  stuff – is the organization’s story compelling? what does success look like? what is the elevator pitch?   Instead, we focused on whether it is important for her to believe in the fundraising ask and the $100,000 goal.

Put another way, as the founder and fundraiser-in-chief, how important is it to believe in the story at all three of these levels: mission; fundraising ask; fundraising goal?

My answer: it’s essential.

Think of it diagramed out like this:

The trap that many nonprofits fall in to is to come at this diagram from the left, meaning you (the founder) feel:

  • A deep belief about the programmatic work
  • A lesser belief in the ask you’re making of the person you’re sitting across from
  • And vague indifference about the fundraising goal – it’s a number you’re working towards, but the quality of your conviction about this is at another level entirely.

But of course your (potential) donor is, most likely, coming at this from the right:

  • The thing that is most real to her is the funding she might or might not put into your organization (literally thousands or tens of thousands of dollars of her money…what could be more real than that?)
  • Whether she’ll be part of the broader group of funders needed to make this work possible (no one wants to be the only one)
  • And the thing that’s least real to her (at the start of your conversation at least) is the programmatic work you’re doing

The most successful fundraising conversations break down all of these barriers and (unintended) habits: the successful fundraiser successfully shares the story in a way that makes the programmatic work as real to the potential funder as it is to her; she also literally sits in the shoes of the potential funder to understand and decide together if providing philanthropic support will meet the funder’s goals.

And the successful funder puts herself in the shoes of the organization and makes every effort to understand what it needs most; and she takes steps – financial and otherwise – to help the organization reach its goals.

A deep belief, a deep conviction in the programmatic work, the ask you’re making, and the overall goal?  They’re table stakes.  Without that, you can’t start down the path.

Have any questions – ask away

Reposting this short video that’s featured on Acumen’s website.  A great chance to ask questions about whatever interests you.

I love the use of annotations in the video (feels like the closest I’ve gotten to doing green screen martial arts in the Matrix).

And it’s great to see our team turning this around in 24 hours.  Enjoy.

Why are you staring?

Why are you staring all day at your computer?

Is it because you’re working or because you’re trying to figure out what to work on?

They’re not the same thing.