The Crowd Whisperer

on in Fundraising

Conformity.  For the past 50 years, in the aftermath of the era of the “man in the grey flannel suit,” conforming to social norms has been seen as the mark of the “organization man.”

Unimaginative.  Unquestioning followers of the rules.  Sheep.

But a pull towards conformity can, paradoxically, be a liberating force in nonprofit governance and fundraising.  It can provide a way to construct a new social norm; to exhibit previously unseen behavior and present it as “the way things are.”

And then sit back and watch the crowd follow along.

Like when you seed the tip jar at a coffee shop with some coins and a few dollars, giving customers the impression that others are participating in this social interaction.

Non conforming PeepOr when someone is tapped to be the first bidder at an auction, and someone else to bid them up – under the theory that others will chime in when they see this as socially-sanctioned behavior.

Or when a board member is lauded for going on major donor visits, making the silent point that “this is what board members do.”


Presenting desired actions as expected, achievable behavior.

It works.

Boosting compliance is the subject of a chapter in Sam Sommers’ 2011 book Situations Matter – an exploration of the power of context in influencing social norms and human behavior. It turns out that silently acting “as if” – as if all members of this group behave this way – can bring people to, in fact, behave this way.

We avid students of strategies for shifting organizational culture have long known this.  But it’s worth re-remembering, again and again, cause it’s so powerful and so subtle.

Want your board members to behave differently?  One of the instruments at your command is to find the few who can take the first dive into the unknown and then nonchalantly report back as if it’s “no big deal.”

Sure, it’s not the entire answer.  There’s skill acquisition, leadership development, even rejiggering what you’re asking people to do so it’s truly the next step on the ladder and not a task that involves their leaping from cliff to cliff with a chasm inbetween.  You have to ask people for what is actually possible, in other words.

But crowd whispering – manipulating the groundswell of motivation so that people go along with the “new” norm – is an important piece of the puzzle.

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