By Otis Fulton and Katrina VanHuss

One of the hurdles that organizations that depend on volunteer fundraisers must overcome is people’s aversion to asking others for money on the organization’s behalf. It isn’t just money by the way. It turns out that people loathe to ask others for anything — to give up a seat on the bus, to fill out a questionnaire, you name it. So, it’s really not about the money at all.

At the root of our hesitancy is the fear of being rejected. We are all influenced by what psychologists refer to as “egocentric bias.” We’re so concerned with our anxiety about making “the ask” on behalf of the organization that we are oblivious to what the person we are asking is feeling. But the data from countless social psychology experiments tell us we should change our collective hesitancy into enthusiasm. What happens when people get a request from another?

It turns out, people are really motivated to say “yes.” They want to comply.

For the last 10 years, Cornell University psychologist Vanessa Bohns has looked at how much people realize the extent of their influence over others. For example, she studied how much people can influence others to do favors for them, donate money —even lie for them.

The titles of some of her publications hint at what a fascinating body of research she has produced. “Rejecting Unwanted Romantic Advances Is More Difficult Than Suitors Realize,” “Underestimating Our Influence Over Others’ Unethical Behavior and Decisions,” and “Ask in Person: You’re Less Persuasive Than You Think Over Email” is a sampling (more about this last one in a minute).

In her new book, “You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters,” Bohns describes a study she did with volunteer fundraisers at a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Team in Training event. She asked fundraisers how many people they would need to solicit donations from to meet the fundraising goal they had set for themselves.

For example, a fundraiser whose goal was in the thousands of dollars might say that they would have to ask 200 people to donate to meet their goal.

People tended to overshoot the mark by double; someone estimating 200 asks to meet their goal only had to ask around 100. Because of their egocentric bias, they’d been focused on their anxieties rather than the amount of influence they had.

In a 2020 NPR interview, Bohns describes it this way: “You’re thinking about what you’re asking. ‘I’m asking this person for money. Will this person give me money?’ What you’re not doing is thinking about—what if you were sitting there, you know, potentially in your cubicle and a co-worker came up to you and said, ‘Hey, I’m participating in a race; would you be willing to sponsor me?’ If you were sitting there, it’d be really hard to say no to your co-worker. Right? It’d be really hard to let them down. It’d be really awkward. What would you even say? And so, people are kind of put on the spot, and they find it really difficult to say no, so they go ahead and agree.”

So, what can we do with our understanding of egocentric bias? You’ve probably heard of the “foot-in-the-door technique.” After complying with a small request, people are more likely to say “yes” later to a larger request.

Less widely known is the “door-in-the-face technique.” That’s when you make some large request (expecting to have the door shut in your face) and then make a smaller request when the first ask is rejected. People are much more likely to say “yes” after they’ve said “no” to a bigger request.

Here’s something worth trying with your volunteer fundraisers. Ask them to set a fundraising goal and estimate how many people they expect to solicit to make that goal. Based on Bohns’ work, they will likely overestimate by double. Just thinking about making that many asks is bound to be anxiety-producing (no doubt this explains some of those zero-dollar fundraisers out there, who sign up but never begin to fundraise). Then, say or write something like, “Wow, I know that’s asking a lot of you. How about just doing half that many? Just commit to that number, and I’m sure it will be fine.” What a relief. And, you know, if they get anywhere near that goal, they’ll keep going until they make it (see “completion bias”).

We don’t have any data regarding how this technique can increase the number of fundraisers that engage, but it’s well worth investigating with your volunteers.

Finally, Dr. Bohns’ study about people being less persuasive than they think they will be via email. Just as people underestimate their influence over others in person, they overestimate their influence when communicating on email. Note, though, that the design of this study had people estimate their influence on strangers, not friends and family, the usual targets of volunteer fundraiser solicitations. All the same, it’s worth encouraging volunteers to fundraise in person whenever possible, follow up emails with phone calls, etc.

We forgot to mention—the study on rejecting unwanted romantic advances is an eye-opener. It might explain why Chris over in accounting always gives you such a wide berth.