3 Ways Development Pros Forget Human Nature

Despite how appealing a week marooned alone on a deserted island might sound in the fantasies of our hectic lives, the reality is that humans are intensely social creatures.  When given the choice of aloneness versus togetherness, we dependably choose the fellowship of others.

Think of the choices we’ve made over the eons of time.  Instead of living alone, we live and rear the next generation in close family units.  Instead of spreading out across the earth, we congregate primarily in large metro areas worldwide.  Instead of conducting activities in isolation, we gather together physically to work, worship, recreate, and eat daily.  We develop complex rituals and communication strategies to navigate the created social fabric of our worlds.  We crave and need each other.  It’s a law of the human experience.

Technologically, of course, we are creating platforms that allow for even more human connectivity.  We carry smart phones that connect us.  We have tablet PCs that keep us connected.  Our TVs are connected.  Even our washing machines are able to keep us connected today.   In most everything we do, we strive to become closer to each other, to connect more information and communications, and to engage others.  The clear arc of human experience points us toward more togetherness.

You may be thinking, “well, yes, Jason, everyone understands this.  This is obvious.”  Aristotle told us that humans are “conjugal” by nature.   But while we might all agree that humans are social beings, some of our decisions as development professionals aren’t always in alignment with this understanding.

Here are 3 examples of how otherwise thoughtful development professionals make decisions which are out of alignment with this basic understanding of human nature.

1.  Failure to Engage Volunteers – More and more, I find institutions that have taken the position that volunteers in the development program aren’t worth the effort.  “We are the professionals who know how to do this work,” goes the thinking, “and volunteers don’t add much value.”  The problem is not the volunteers.  The problem is the development office which has not creatively and appropriately engaged the volunteers in meaningful activities.  Purposefully engaged volunteers enrich a development program and lead to enhanced outcomes.

2.  Failure to Bundle Special Events – Every institution plans special events.  But many do so in isolation – basically one-off events that are spread out throughout the year.   For instance, an institution may have a donor recognition event in the fall, a special advisory council event in the spring, a fundraising event in the early summer, etc.  Instead, when institutions bundle 3 or 4 special events over the course of a long weekend or other condensed time frame, they leverage the human desire to be social.  The “buzz” that is created from bundled events that attract diverse constituencies positively impacts the experience of all those in attendance.

3.  Failure to Leverage Giving Levels – The extent to which many institutions use formal giving levels is to publicly recognize donors in their annual report.  Instead, through events, initiatives, and other programming we should use giving levels to leverage our donors’ desire to be associated with a certain level of giving.  To illustrate how powerful the drive is to be associated with a particular group, let me use the following example from childhood.  My daughter, who is 7 and in the second grade is part of the “Bluebird Reading Group” in her class.  As any parent will quickly attest, if you are unaware of the reading group levels in your child’s class don’t fret.  Within a few days, like it or not, your child will tell you the “pecking order.”  They figure it out very fast.  We compare ourselves.  We like to be associated with others who are similar to us.  And when we are grouped, we aspire to to move up to the next group!

Development professionals make plans each year with the intent to increase charitable gift income.  To enhance the promise of our efforts, we must first start by aligning our plans with the most basic elements of human nature.


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