Have you ever wondered why, when a dog gives you his ball you feel compelled to throw it for him? It’s more than just the cute look on his face. According to Robert Cialdini, professor and author of the well-known Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, reciprocation is a universal motivator for repayment. We’ve all seen it at work in commercial settings, from the cheap swag handed out at networking events (branded pens, candy) to the subtle suggestion of an offered bottle of water when purchasing a car. This well-researched phenomenon is a powerful tool for nonprofits as well.
The idea is that when an uninvited favor is offered, we automatically feel obligated to reciprocate. The dog has given you something and, whether you wanted that slimy ball or not, you feel compelled to return the favor. In fact, there is so much social pressure to comply in human-to-human situations, that numerous unflattering words exist for those who take without giving back, whether the favor was wanted or not: freeloader, moocher, sponger…
How can we use this tool without being crass about it? Some organizations include a nickel in their direct mail; others provide free calendars or tote bags in exchange for a certain level of donation. These all work, but there are even gentler ways to employ the technique by thinking of it in terms of making a concession. When an organization makes a concession, reciprocation works because there is social pressure not to exploit someone who has made an allowance.
Most fundraising requests incorporate concessions when they ask for a big donation first and then retreat to a smaller one. Instead of scaring people away, as long as the larger amount isn’t outlandish, this tactic typically makes donors want to contribute a little bit more that they would have otherwise because the organization has made a concession and the other donation levels seem smaller in comparison.
Here are more ways you can incorporate reciprocation and concessions into your nonprofit work:
- Offer free admission to your next workshop or event to someone who you suspect will be a big supporter. Not only are you giving them a chance to see your work in action, you have set up an opportunity for repayment.
- Ask someone to take on a large volunteer job. If rejected, offer something simpler. This can work because, like the donation request example, the new job seems smaller by comparison, but it also is effective because it gives the volunteer a sense of responsibility and satisfaction about the situation. The volunteer now may feel responsible for the terms of the agreement since it appears she influenced you to change it. She also could feel more satisfaction through a sense of control over the situation. Both responsibility and satisfaction have been shown to lead to better outcomes.
- If there is an organization you are hoping to partner with on a big project in the future, offer to help them in small ways now such as favoriting and sharing their social media posts or passing on links to articles you think would benefit them. In this way, you are building a positive relationship as well as a desire on their part to repay you in the future.
Just think how joyous you make that dog feel when you reciprocate his “gift” by throwing the ball for him. You can do the same for valuable donors, volunteers, and partners by using the gentle influence of reciprocation. Making others happy while rewarding your own organization’s needs – now what could be better than that?
What ways have you used reciprocation to your organization’s benefit? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments.
Image credit: FreeImages.com/Wendy Domeni
 Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Revised). New York: Harper Business.