NEW IDEAS: A balancing act – applying ‘total’ RF to all donor relationships

Ian copy

Ian MacQuillin explores how total relationship fundraising could ensure that supporters have harmonious relationships in all their contacts with a nonprofit organisation.


Four years ago a local fundraising committee for Macmillan Cancer Support cut ties with its parent organization and ceased fundraising for it in protest at the organization’s use of doorstep face-to-face (F2F) fundraisers in their area, and Macmillan’s refusal to stop using this method of fundraising when the local committee asked them to do so.

The local committee chair described the practice of doorstep F2F as “fundamentally unacceptable”, partly because they believed the use of professional fundraisers from outside the area clashed with their values as volunteers. She said that it was “very upsetting” when Macmillan refused to accede to their ‘cease and desist’ request. As a consequence “we decided as a group that we no longer wanted to be associated with a charity using such high pressure tactics”.

Rogare’s review of relationship fundraising – published in January this year with the support of Bloomerang and Pursuant in the USA ­– looked mainly at how fundraisers could utilise current ideas from social psychology to build better relationships with their donors.

But here is a relationship that has clearly broken down, so much so that one party has actually left the relationship.

“Balance Theory suggests an alternative approach to mystery shopping, by identifying the factors that could lead to unbalanced relationships and probing how a charity responds to a complaint about these factors.”

Is there anything that social psychology can tell us about relationships such as these, and how fundraisers can go about maintaining and repairing them – and preventing them breaking down?

One thing that arises from the Macmillan case is that this isn’t a straight bilateral relationship between a charity and a group of its volunteer fundraisers: there is a third component in this relationship, and that’s the bit that led to the relationship breakdown – doorstep fundraisers.

The local volunteers were fine with the relationship they had with Macmillan, but they were not at all happy with the relationship they had with (they would probably say was forced upon them) the doorstep fundraisers who called at their door wearing Macmillan branding. It was the dissatisfaction with this third component that led to the dissolution of this ‘ménage-a-trois’.

Fritz Heider – inventor of Balance Theory.

The theory from social psychology that looks at how such three-armed relationships fit together or fall apart is called Balance Theory, advanced by Austrian-American psychologist Fritz Heider in his 1958 book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations.

Balance Theory is a theory of attitude change that states that people strive to maintain a sense of balance – or ‘cognitive consistency’ – in their thoughts, feelings and social relationships.

In the Macmillan case, it would appear that the use of an (ideologically?) “fundamentally unacceptable” form of fundraising did not allow the volunteers to maintain such consistency in how they felt about the charity they supported. A relationship that involved the national charity, volunteer fundraisers and doorstep fundraisers became ‘unbalanced’, and fell apart as a result.

Here’s how Balance Theory works.

The hypothetical case of Jane and the telephone fundraisers

Heider identified two types of ways that relations between separate parties (or “entities”) could be perceived as fitting together: unit relations and sentiment relations. A unit relation exists where one entity is seen as belonging to or being part of the other, such as members of a family or a person and her beliefs – in the Macmillan case, this was a charity and its supporters or, viewed from a different perspective, a donor and her chosen charity. A sentiment relation exists when two entities are linked because one has expressed a preference, or dislike, for the other.

Relations are represented by a ‘triad’, graphically represented by a triangle (see Fig 1).

Each triad contains:

Balance - Macmillan
Fig 1) The unbalanced relationships between Macmillan Cancer Support, its local volunteers, and its professional doorstep fundraisers

1) a person and their perceptions – in the Macmillan case, each member of the local fundraising committee

2) some other person or object – Macmillan Cancer Support

3) an ‘attitude object’ – doorstep fundraisers/ing

These are represented at the apexes of the triangle. The sides of the triangle represent whether a unit relation exists between them and the + and – signs show the quality of the sentiment relation between them.

A relationship between two entities is ‘balanced’ when they both value the same thing and the sentiment relations between them fit together harmoniously; the relationship is ‘unbalanced’ when they do not (a triad is balanced when all relations are the same – are all harmonious – or when two relations are negative; it is unbalanced when two relations are positive).

Balanced relationships are pleasant and rewarding; unbalanced relationships lead to friction and tension, so when a relationship is unbalanced, people will take action to attempt to balance it, either by changing their sentiment relation (altering their perception or attitude by finding some way to come to terms with the problematic attitude object) or leaving the unit.

Balance theory has been used to explain a number of consumer behaviour phenomena. For example, consumers perceive a pasta dish to be healthier when it is shown on a menu as a ‘salad’ rather than listed under ‘pasta’. Balance theory explains this by suggesting that consumers have negative sentiment relations to ‘pasta’ but positive sentiment relations to ‘salads’ (in the context of a healthy lifestyle). Therefore, the positive sentiment about salads influences how they feel about the pasta dish, even though it is still ‘unhealthy’ pasta.

Balance Theory has also been used to analyse service quality to consumers and the potential negative consumer attitudes that may result from sports sponsorship. It has also been used to explain charity-company cause related marketing tie-ins, suggesting that firms may not be able to overcome negative consumer sentiment relations simply by associating with a charity.

Can it also be applied to fundraising relationships?

To explore this, let’s move away from the doorstep example. Think about Jane, who has a ‘unit relation’ with a particular charity because she donates to them, and a ‘sentiment relation’ with the same charity because she doesn’t like the telephone fundraisers who call her at 7.45 in the evening during her favourite soap opera.

Balance Jane
Fig 2) Jane’s balanced and unbalanced fundraising relationships. Fig 2a) Unbalanced – Jane likes the charity but doesn’t like being called at home by telephone fundraisers. Fig 2b) Balanced – Jane has an improved perception of telephone fundraising. Fig 2c) Balanced – Jane’s dislike of telephone fundraisers has led her to adopt a negative attitude to the charity she supports. Fig 2d) Relationship dissolved – Jane revokes permission to be contacted by the charity (and/or cancels her donation). Fig 2e) Balanced – Charity develops a negative attitude to telephone fundraisers. Fig 2f) Relationship dissolved – Charity stops using telephone fundraisers.

Fig 2a shows Jane’s relationship to the charity and its telephone fundraisers (an attribute of the charity). This is an unbalanced triad because, although Jane has a positive sentiment relation with the charity, and the charity has a positive sentiment relation with its telephone fundraisers, Jane has a negative sentiment relation with those fundraisers. Balance Theory predicts that this will cause tension for Jane and she will seek to balance the triad.

Figs 2b and 2c show two ways this triad can be balanced. In Fig 2b, the triad is balanced because Jane has improved her perception of telephone fundraisers, perhaps because of good PR by the charity or a representative body – well, we can all dream, can’t we?

In Fig 2c, the triad is also balanced because now Jane has developed a negative sentiment to the charity. Because she is both unhappy with the fundraising method and the charity that uses it, Jane therefore no longer suffers cognitive dissonance at liking a charity but not liking the fundraising method they use – now she dislikes both. This is probably the most likely way this triad would become balanced. The upshot of balancing the triad this way is that Jane is now likely to leave the triad altogether – perhaps she will tell the charity not to contact her or she might register with the Fundraising Preference Service; at worst she might cancel her donation altogether (fig 2d).

“The relationship could become balanced because Jane has improved her perception of telephone fundraisers, perhaps because of good PR by the charity or a representative body – well, we can all dream, can’t we?”

But there is another way to balance this relationship, and that’s for the charity to first develop a negative sentiment relationship towards its own telephone fundraisers (fig 2e) and then to dissolve the unit relationship with those fundraisers (fig 2f). Jane still has a negative attitude to telephone fundraisers, but as they are not her charity’s telephone fundraisers, her sentiment relationship with the charity she supports is protected.

In 2012, Macmillan Cancer Support decided not to go down this route in respect of doorstep face-to-face, concluding that the good contributed by doorstep F2F outweighed the disamenity that would result from the dissolution of the relationship with the local committee.

However, last summer many charities took the other option, promptly ending relationships with telephone agencies folllowing media allegations of wrongdoing, presumably to ensure not just that sentiment relationships with donors were protected, but probably also as a pre-emptive measure to prevent sentiment relationships with the media, regulators and legislators from getting any worse. An interesting discussion topic (for another blog, perhaps) would be to ask whether such negative sentiments towards particular types of fundraising already existed in charities – in other departments such as communications and on the board – making it harder to defend, and thus easier to dissolve, relationships with agencies.

Balancing donors’ relationships

Analysing fundraising relationships using Balance Theory helps us see where and why relationships are failing and what we can do to fix them. However, at least in the hypothetical case of Jane, and probably in the real life case of Macmillan and their local committee, you could level an accusation of ‘so what’? It’s obvious some people don’t like telephone fundraising or F2F, and its also obvious one of the solutions to this is better messaging and communications. How does Balance Theory really tell us anything we didn’t know already?

The main objective of Rogare’s relationship fundraising review was to look at what’s going on in social psychology regarding relationship building and speculate if this could be applied to donor relationships. But we also wanted to look at whether relationship fundraising could be ‘refashioned’.

One recommendation contained in the report, which I described in my previous Critical Fundraising blog, was to reconceptualise relationship fundraising as ‘total’ relationship fundraising. Rather than adopting a narrow focus on the donor and their experience of giving – the current MO of ‘donorcentrism’ – relationship fundraisers should instead take responsibility for all relationships that enable relationships with donors.

The role of the relationship fundraiser thus becomes not just enhancing donor experiences through ensuring high levels of donor satisfaction, but of ensuring that donors have balanced relationships with the charities they support.

For example, most mystery shopping exercises carried out in respect of fundraising aim to test customer service by, for example, donating to a charity and recording how quickly and by what method the donors is thanked, (e.g. Bloomerang’s ‘Great $5 Donor Communication Experiment’; or by telephoning a charity to try to make an ad hoc donation and recording how the charity handles this).

Balance Theory suggests an alternative approach to mystery shopping, by identifying the factors that could lead to unbalanced relationships and probing how a charity responds to a complaint about these factors – i.e. testing whether a nonprofit’s response to a complaint is likely to contribute to a rebalancing of the relationship or leave it unbalanced.

Balance theory - Arthur
Fig 3) Arthur’s relationship to charity salaries.

Let’s consider Arthur, who is a satisfied mid-level giver (satisfied not just with the level of customer service he receives from being part of a mid-level donor club, through which he donates £50 a month, but also the use to which that £50 is put). However, Arthur very strongly believes that charities should not pay their staff six-figure salaries, and he has just read in the Telegraph that this charity pays its ceo £150,000 a year. The Arthur-charity-salary triad is an unbalanced relationship (Fig 3).

This is a ‘relationship fundraising’ issue, in the widest sense of the term, because the unbalanced relationship that a donor has with the charity threatens the long-term value of this donor to the charity. So mystery shopping informed by Balance Theory might take the form of a making a dummy complaint about the about the salary level of senior staff, recording how the charity responds, and then present this response along with a couple of alternatives to a focus group of donors to see which would best mollify the complaintant.

As I said in my previous blog on ‘total’ relationship fundraising (TFR), Ken Burnett, in his original definition of relationship fundraising, anticipated this issue:

“[Relationship Fundraising’s] overriding consideration is to care for and develop that bond [between supporter and nonprofit] and to do nothing that might damage or jeopardize it. Every activity is therefore geared toward making sure donors know they are important, valued and considered, which has the effect of maximizing funds per donor in the long term.”

(Emphasis added.)

In that last blog, I asked rhetorically whether “every activity” should refer to everything that a fundraiser does, or everything that a nonprofit does, and if the latter, does that mean that fundraisers should have some kind of responsibility or accountability for every type of relationship that a donor has with a charity, not just the specific relationship channel that ultimately leads to (or doesn’t lead to) a donation.

In the case of Arthur and his antipathy towards high executive salaries, there are two ways this could play out. Either fundraisers (the fundraising function and/or the fundraising department) could assume responsibility for directing or advising how the charity handles its complaints procedures. Or the organisation as a whole could shift culturally to a TFR mindset so that everyone in the organisation is thinking how “every activity” that they carry out will impact on the experience of their donors: everyone who complains about executive salaries is, after all, already a donor or a potential future donor. Establishing such a cultural shift among their peers was something that participants to Rogare’s relationship fundraising review said was urgently needed.

This would mean – as I argued at a CharityComms lunch a few weeks ago – that fundraising must be central to any new charity narrative that’s currently under development by the likes of CharityComms and NCVO.

It also means that TFR can be viewed more through the lens of public relations as:

“The management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom success or failure depends.”

Balancing Arthur’s relations with the charity he supports and the salaries it pays its staff, and Jane’s relations with the charity she supports and the method of fundraising she doesn’t like, are more than ‘just’ asking for money – they are both about maintaining mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and two of its stakeholders (though it is always possible that some unbalanced relationships are simply unbalanceable – perhaps that was the case with Macmillan and its volunteer commitee).

The challenge we now face – and one I’ll explore in a later blog – is whether we can use any insights from public relations theory to help embed this cultural change in nonprofit organisations and make such a total relationship fundraising mindset a reality.

AM logos May 2016

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