Using Principles of Empathetic Evolution in Fundraising

Troublemaker Rapids, S. Fork American River

I’ve been preparing some materials on understanding Spiral Dynamics and empathy in fundraising lately, directed at my junior faculty, and have decided to post them occasionally on my blog. Of course, if anyone’s interested, I’m available to consult.

Here you go! This stuff is worth its weight in gold. Which may not mean much, because, well, they’re just electrons!

Donor Identification – A Working Theory

Chuck Pezeshki, Professor, School of MME, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-2920

People give money to universities for all sorts of things.  But what people will give money to, in the context of their donation pattern, varies wildly.  There are many factors, and as with all things, the why of how people give will be at some intersection of some state.  

But there are some ways to understand how all this works.  And it is useful to have some model on that whyas you go out there in the industrial world.

The short version of why people give is that people will give for external factors – remember that we are asking money from companies, and inherently, if those individuals are giving corporate money, those factors are part.  But they also give for internal factors – ways that they can find meaning in life. 

Here’s the thing – those things that people find meaning in are largely social interactions – either with their own selves, or other people.  It’s up to you to figure out those places in life/developmental stages and present your request in that light.  Let’s dig in!

Value Sets/v-Memes

All people (you included) are run by your brain and how it is programmed.  And while we may believe we are very much in charge of our conscious brain, the hard, unpopular reality is that we are not.  Our subconscious programming will create our perspective and how we receive data from the outside world, as well as shape our actions. 

That subconscious programming can be summarized into an aggregate of a canonical sets of values.  These were named “V-Memes” by Don Beck, and my scholarly work has expanded on how these work.  These v-Memes dictate how we view social interactions, and how we structure relationships, which is obviously key in asking people for money.  No one person is just one v-Meme – they are a combination, though there is usually one dominant.

These v-Memes are:

Survival – “I’m giving this money because if I don’t, I’ll be harmed/die.”  Almost no donors to universities function at this level.

Tribal – “I’m giving this money because I remember my college years, and they were the best times of my life.  Go Cougs!”  Lots of people return to the university and initially give for this reason, though other v-Memes will inherently come into play.  All Super-Cougars (people that will give the university no matter what we do) are fiercely tribal.  

Authority-Driven – Many people in the donor pool are driven by status – they want to give to WSU, but also want others to know about it.  Though this is not typically a capstone project donor, they are out there. Someone who is authority-driven often wants to give to either a high-status project that we label, or want their name on something.  Universities function largely on status, and status is often inherently irrational. Why do you need that LV bag anyway?  So this “makes sense” to people in the university, and these alternatives are often trotted forward.  These types of people also tend to give to a static cause.  An example might be a building, or a scholarship – something that will not change over time, and is not keyed so much into a student experience.

Legalistic/Absolutistic – People who are institutionally oriented fall into this v-Meme.  They are giving largely for the continuity of the institution, and are less concerned about having their name appear on a building.  They may still give, for example, to a building fund, or something that will add to institutional strength.  

A point of reflection.  Donors who are dominated by the v-Memes above are mostly institutional donors.  They are not the ones particularly oriented toward individual student experience, though, if suggested, they can be motivated by it.  The v-Memes above also describe other institutional motivations – more toward providing benefit back to the institution doing the giving.  Examples might be an HR benefit, or good publicity.  These are also donors who likely do not focus on student development as a driving factor in their philosophy.

Let’s keep going!

Performance/Goal-based – Now we’re getting into the prime capstone giving categories.  People in this v-Meme believe that students having an experience where they learn business skills, build something, or otherwise learn how to collaborate with other students, is extremely valuable.  These are people who don’t care about getting their name on a building, and it is no incentive.  In fact, people in this v-Meme often negatively view people asking for money for those types of things!  They are interested in students building agency to think for themselves, succeed in the job market, and live successful lives.  They are dynamicgivers, more than happy to give money for short duration projects.  They also will be very interested in measurable outputs (all capstone projects have a deliverable as part of this) and often want to participate in some fashion.  Capstone mentors almost always have a large part of this v-Meme in their v-MemeNA.  “Students have to learn to get work done!” is a compelling argument to this group.

Communitarian – While some people may think this v-Meme describes “people wanting to give students a hug”, the Communitarian v-Meme is a bit more complex than that.  Communitarians are very much into identifying students, and student development as an individual/small group giving opportunity.  A successful pitch to them will involve you displaying knowledge that shows you can accurately identify targeted individuals.  While some diversity giving falls into this category, it will be met with skeptical glances if you have no real experience yourself with a given diversity community.  It’s important to remember, especially now in our overheated polis, that more people are asking more questions than ever before about what we’re doing.  It is important for you to be able to answer them.  Communitarians will definitely identify with team-based projects, and will want to participate in a meaningful fashion.  Most people do not evolve to this point until the age of 35 (of course there are exceptions) and are coming back to the university for more profound connection.  They didn’t get enough out of football, or the Cougar Nation, and are looking to make a deeper difference in this world.

People as communitarians will often have ideas on how the class should be taught.  You should listen to them, always.  The key to reaching them is to appeal to their desire for an authentic experience, which they will basically instantly recognize. 

Point of reflection – the two v-Memes above function relationally very differently than the lower four.  The lower four may be impressed by your status (a Distinguished Professor!) The last two far more by your individual program and attempts to build student agency.  The lower four v-Memes are very much low empathy and low connection with individuals.  The higher two will recognize and value attempts to build connection between all stakeholders in the process.  

There’s obviously a lot more going on here regarding relational dynamics, but this is a good start.

The final two v-Memes you will rarely see, but you can cultivate.  These two depend on reflective process and self-awareness, and are useful in discussions with people engaged with making your process better, as well as evolving their own perspective.  They’re included more for completeness.

Global Systemic – Global systemic v-Meme thinking sees the value in assembling the various pieces from each of the lower v-Memes in order to generate a comprehensive solution for the challenge, in our case, of helping students transition into the workplace.  They may see both the need for authority-driven advice, as well as good rules, while supporting a donation so students can actually build a given project inside the context of a structured community.  This v-Meme will also accept limitations in knowledge and uncertainty. In fact, if you act like you know it all, they’ll immediately see you as a fraud!  Humility is key here, as well as discussing experiments and positive/negative outcomes.  

Global Holistic – Global holistic thinkers are truly rare.  It’s not enough to be worried about large problems, like global warming or racism.  They will be interested in exposing students to larger global issues, and will often write The Big Check if you can show a given project will deliver the kind of experience that will truly broaden student horizons.  

The key element here is that people will address directly what they don’t know, and expect you to present the background that you can, at least, make a dent in a given issue in student enlightenment.  They absolutely will not line up behind standard political categories of Left/Right, and if you do, you’ll disqualify yourself.  

There are more and more of these donors out there, especially in the Pacific NW, and we are poorly serving them.  Lots of these people will have a ton of international travel and work experience in their portfolio, and it is important, when appealing to them, that you clearly delineate what you know and what you don’t.  They are often looking for a shared journey, even if they don’t accompany students physically on it.  When presenting to them, you have to understand your own authentic self, as they will form a model of you from their own experiences, which are likely larger than yours.  

That’s a lot.  I hope all of you re-read this at least three times.  The next thing I’ll send out will be understanding how these different v-Memes come into conflict.  It’s important for you to understand them, as well as how they apply to yourself.  Conflict isn’t always disqualifying in the donor relationship – but a lack of self-knowledge PLUS conflict certainly is.  

You can get a head start by reading this piece.  I guarantee it’s one of my best pieces of thinking.    

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