Attracting the Attention of New Donors

You may recall some year’s back, the experiment in which the task is to count how many times the players wearing white passed the basketball.  If you have not seen the video or do not know about the purpose of the study by Chabris and Simons, click the link now and participate.   Focus on counting the number of passes.

I’ll wait. . . . . .


Ok, so did you see the gorilla?  Only about 50% of people do – even though each is staring right at the screen and the gorilla passes right through the center of the screen.  The concept is called the “illusion of attention.”  It means that even though we look straight at something – perhaps even stare – we don’t necessarily see all there is to see.  If you missed the gorilla, you weren’t expecting to see something odd (the gorilla).  Instead, your attention was focused on the task at hand (counting the passes).  Therefore, even though you were staring at the screen intently, your attention on the passes did not allow you to see the gorilla in the midst.

In 2008, Washington Post writer, Gene Weingarten, conducted an experiment with Joshua Bell, world-renowed violinist.  Weingarten set up Bell to play a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin at the L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, DC.  Bell played, like a regular street musician, for 45 minutes during a regular rush-hour morning.  More than 1,000 passed by him as he played wonderfully complex classical pieces.  Only 7 stopped to listen for any appreciable time.  Only one recognized him.  This, in our culturally savvy and artistically sophisticated nation’s capital.

The take-away from the experiment was not that people didn’t care for classical music nor didn’t like the way he was playing.  The take-away was that the 1,000+ people who walked by were not expecting to see a virtuoso violinist playing in the subway – and, therefore, they didn’t see him.  Their attention – at least for the vast majority of them probably – was focused on getting to work and so they weren’t able to see something “odd” like Joshua Bell playing in the subway.

I was reminded of these interesting studies recently in talking with some folks about attracting the attention of new donors.  How might we best attract the attention of new donors so that they might be encouraged to give generously?  The answer to this question, at least in part, seems to be that our goal should not be to stand out in the traditional sense.

This is against all conventional wisdom.  Think about it.  How much more “stand out” can you get than a gorilla walking through a group passing basketballs and Joshua Bell playing a Stradivarius in the subway?!?  No, being different, even better, more flashy, more colorful, louder, catchy, or more distinctive isn’t the answer.

Instead, the act of attracting the attention of new donors would seem to happen very differently.  Think about the research that has been done on accidents involving cars and pedestrians or bicyclists.  It is rather clear:  walking and biking are the least dangerous in the cities where walking and biking are done the most.    In other words, you have less chance to get hit by a car if you are a walker or biker the more that walking and biking are practiced.   The reason is equally as clear:  auto drivers become used to seeing walkers and bikers in cities were these activities are part of the culture and so, they learn to pay attention (and avoid) to them.   In cities where walking and bicycling are not practiced as much, walkers and bikers may stand out more, but they are paid attention to less.

So, to gain the attention of new donors, we may just want to spend our institutions’ resources on becoming more predictable, more regular, more part of the everyday culture – to become more unsurprising and more expected.  When new donor prospects are used to seeing us and expect to see us, that is when they will pay attention to us.


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