Making the Ask
How one simple question can turn skeptics into givers
Illustrations by Abbey Lossing
In 2009, the renowned psychologist Adam Grant asked his students at the Wharton School of the Uiversity of Pennsylvania a simple yet mysterious question: What motivates people to give?
To find out, they targeted the college basketball team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, attempting to see if they could increase attendance at home games among 336 season-ticket holders. Grant and his students conducted an experiment. First, a third of the fans were left alone—the control group. Second, another group was emailed persuasive arguments, including quotes from coaches and players about how packed stands increase the team’s shot percentages. Finally, the class emailed the last group to ask a single question: Are you planning to attend? The last email yielded a surprising response: 85 percent of those fans attended the game, as opposed to only 76 percent of those who received the persuasive email (interestingly, 77 percent of the control group went on their own).
“It was way easier,” says Grant, the best-selling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success and co-author of Option B with Sheryl Sandberg. “The very simple, onetime question is a great way to get people to give because it gives them a moment to reflect. They’re more likely to do it because they feel like they thought about it on their own.”
“A lot of the work we do is changing hearts and minds.”
For years, Grant has researched how giving creates more successful people and businesses, consulting with clients like Facebook, Google, and the NBA. And now another company has caught his interest: a ride-sharing company that asks a single question to yield a world-changing result. In May, Lyft launched Round Up & Donate, a groundbreaking new campaign that allows passengers to round up their fares to the nearest dollar and then donate that remainder to one of nine causes. In only seven months, the program has raised more than $3 million, a remarkable sum due to its Grant-endorsed approach: Ask one simple question. “One thing that’s cool about Lyft is that they’re not overwhelming you with a barrage of reasons why you ought to give,” says Grant. “It’s just a very simple, ‘Hey, here’s what’s going on. Do you want to do this?’ And that makes people get excited about it for themselves.”
Grant’s research has profound implications for both companies and nonprofits. His main discovery is that persuasion—even if well intended—raises people’s suspicions. “The harder we work to persuade people, the more they put up shields,” he says. “We don’t want to be told what to do.” By contrast, presenting people with a simple option gives them air to breathe—and fosters trust. “One of the ways to bypass resistance is to ask about people’s intentions,” he says. “They’re more likely to do it because they thought about it and were like, ‘Yeah, I want to be that kind of person.’ We like to think we have the freedom to make our own choices.”
Giving people a simple opportunity to contribute to causes they care about is the main principle behind Round Up & Donate. “For this to work, we knew it had to be super easy,” says Henrique Saboia, a 32-year-old executive at Lyft who helped create the campaign. “The last thing we wanted is that awkward moment at a grocery store when you’re asked to donate another dollar. So there’s no pressure.”
With Round Up & Donate, riders are given an initial option to join the program. Then they select a favorite cause and let Lyft automatically round up their fares from that point forward. If they opt out, they receive no more prompts. But if they join, they receive a monthly email stating their total donations and how that has coincided with other riders to make a greater impact. Initiatives like these, according to Grant, are key to building communities of supporters. “The most underappreciated form of social influence is the power of people following the leads of others,” he says. “When you look at that total amount given, you’re like, ‘Hey, other people like me are doing this thing, and I want to see myself as that kind of person, too.’”
Learn more about Round Up & Donate’s partner causes
The American Civil Liberties Union defends and preserves the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to people by the Constitution and laws of the United States.
Purposes: Human rights, freedom, democracy
The Human Rights Campaign is the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer civil-rights organization in the United States, working to ensure equal rights for everyone.
Purposes: LGBTQ rights, freedom, democracy
For organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit partner in Round Up & Donate, the simple act of spreading information is often key to their fund-raising. Founded in 1920, the ACLU has been working to preserve the rights of U.S. citizens for nearly a century. But in an age of increasing chatter from smartphones, cable news channels, and websites, it’s now using new means to convince people of the importance of its work, employing editors and writers to create news stories it can share across social media. “It’s important to break through the noise,” says Pinky Weitzman, the chief digital officer at the ACLU. “So we really go back to the fact that we’re a 97-year-old trusted organization that can explain the intricacies of social topics in an accessible way. We let people know exactly what they can do to fight back against restrictive policies.”
By focusing on accurate, in-depth stories on everything from women’s reproductive rights to voters’ rights and LGBTQ rights, the ACLU often spurs people to give on their own. “We’ve become a news provider in some ways,” says Gerri Engel, a director of development for the ACLU. “We give information that is critical to our mission and breaks through—and that content works to get people to give.”
Similarly, the Human Rights Campaign, another Round Up & Donate nonprofit partner, is increasingly telling stories through online video in order to spur people to make their own choices. “A lot of the work we do is changing hearts and minds,” says Mary Beth Maxwell, a former secretary in the U.S. Department of Labor and a senior vice president at the HRC. “And a lot of that is supported by powerful storytelling.” The largest LGBTQ civil rights advocacy group in the U.S., the HRC regularly creates series of short online films to spotlight a wide range of issues in the gay community, from people fired from jobs over their sexuality to bullied transgender teens and gay immigrants struggling to remain in the U.S. under DACA. “Letting others learn the stories of LGBTQ people motivates them to be a part of our work,” Maxwell says. “It also starts a conversation. I love the Round Up & Donate campaign. Every time I get in a car I end up talking with the driver, so it’s pretty cool if there’s a prompt to discuss multiple causes. It’s how we build a community.”
“In only seven months, Round Up & Donate has raised more than $3 million.”
Ultimately, in addition to keeping it simple, Grant says creating a sense of community is key to increasing donations—and making people happier. “I think it’s a creative way to help people feel like their donation will go further,” he says about Round Up & Donate. “People will give more if they feel like their giving is multiplied, and that sense of community resonates, elevating moods and increasing energy—doing a lot for the givers as well as the recipients.”
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