Recently, Francesco Ambrogetti mentioned his new book to me. His title intrigued me and I asked him to tell me more. Following is a Q & A about his new book, Hooked on a Feeling.
I love the title – what led you to it? Can you explain why you chose it?
People need to “anchor” an idea to something they know, and this is a popular song people will relate to! But joking aside, the book originated with my frustration about the short-term focus of our sector. We focus too much on the transactional part of the relationship with donors and supporters (RFM for instance). Then we keep losing many supporters and donors, and money too!
The second inspiration for the book is that emotions are key to move people. But they are also volatile. Donors forget that they donated. As Antonio Damasio explains, feelings occur after we become aware in our brain of physical changes. Only then do we experience the feeling of fear, sadness, etc.
Emotions are powerful and short-term; feelings are long-term.
And finally, based on this assumption, “Hooked on a Feeling” started from an insight of Seth Godin. Pleasure is short-term and dopamine-driven (and so are donations). Happiness (and loyalty) is a long-term and serotonin-based process. Fundraising is focused on leveraging emotions and delivering pleasure on a short-term basis. (Click-through rates or likes on Facebook, donations, etc.)
But we need a fundamental shift to the happiness of donors, building long-term relationships, and engaging with them. This is harder; it takes longer. But it is more powerful and delivers more money for causes and organizations in the end.
Why did you write the book? What are your goals for it?
We all have an urgent need to feel connected, even more during COVID-19. We want to help others. Or we want to take a stand on some injustice or problem (like systemic racism, gender discrimination, or the climate crisis). Sometimes we do this without relying on or delegating to nonprofit organizations.
We, ordinary citizens, can develop a campaign, then raise money and deliver food, water, medicines, or other things to those in need. We can rally people to boycott a brand or a policy.
There is a world of activism beyond the established charity and fundraising world. And it’s accelerated by mobile and digital technologies. The question is why people are fans of football teams, K-POP bands, a pair of sneakers, but not of charities? Being a vegan, for instance, is so much more than donating, volunteering, or signing a petition.
And the way we use money is also different. We don’t donate spare change. We align our pension, our investments, the way we shop and buy products, and the way we choose and reward brands.
The book is a call to activists and fundraisers to better understand human behavior. To understand the way humans love and become addicted to things and to people. If we understand humans better we could better understand how the desire for change and to do good is driven by profoundly different mechanisms than those imagined in a pyramid or in a cycle.
Can you explain a bit about the new information from neuroscience you mention?
I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked and interacted with people like Paul Zak or Vincenzo Russo and the BrainLab in Milan and so many more in this field. Neuroscience is a fast, diverse and growing body of research and knowledge. There’s advanced and prolific neuroscience research on wine and how we buy and choose a wine, for instance. There’s more research and study applied to charities and giving; every month there’s a new study or article.
There are several research projects on rewards and loyalty and how people get “hooked” on brands and experiences. There is research on decisions and on what makes us happy. For instance, Kahneman, who shows that what we retain in the memory is what then drives decisions. If we’re happy, we want to repeat that experience again.
How does that connect to our feelings? What makes feelings so important?
The “remembering self” – as Kahneman explains – is much more powerful than the “experiencing self.” We take decisions, like repeating a donation or buying more products, based on what’s treasured in our memory. The feeling, the awareness of the emotions linked to the experience or cause, becomes essential.
If this feeling is anchored to a positive memory with a positive reward (I donate, participate in a march, sign a petition, and feel good every time), we then become fans. We’re going on autopilot; we don’t need to be solicited again or, when we are, we’re more likely to respond and to do more. If it feels good to be a member of an organization or to support a cause as part of our identity then we don’t donate occasionally. Instead, we take the extra steps to convince others or to promote the cause beyond our circle.
How do you define “activism”? What moves people from casual interest to become activism?
There’s a spectrum. People move from being a bystander to being a fan or an active promoter and supporter of a cause. It’s not just the quantity of actions taken, or the frequency and value of donations made. It’s how the cause and organization are part of my life and my values.
In the book, I discuss how there is an increasing understanding that identity and commitment (being a “globalist” or a “cat lover”, for instance) as well as satisfaction and trust of the organizations and the way they treat me, are making people more engaged. They donate more and promote a cause or a campaign. These are things that each person feels and remembers differently. But we can “nudge” these by delivering a good and relevant experience.
Can you offer an example of activism rising… then falling off? Why did that happen?
In the book, I use two case studies, Kony 2012 and Ice Bucket Challenge. Remember how these two were celebrated and everybody was asking “what can we do to replicate it”? You can apply also think about the thousands of supporters for Notre Dame after the fire. Those who donated for the koalas in Australia after the fires. Hundreds of thousands supporting the Minnesota Freedom Fund after the George Floyd killing. Or The March for Our Lives.
Experts and pundits labeled these “rage donors” or “emergency donors”, a sort of second-class of supporters that do not donate again or that you cannot convert to long-term supporters.
But this is not true in general. Nobody bothers to understand who they are, why they donated in the first place, and how they want to engage with you. Those who did bother though, have a great chance to increase their supporters and income. But very few do.
How could an organization use the neuroscience findings you mention to increase the numbers of active supporters – and to keep them active?
Neuroscience is not a discipline. It’s a multidisciplinary field and is a very fast-growing set of sciences with a growing body of knowledge and research.
There are several centers and scientists that are also specializing in the application of neuroscience to giving. The important point is that their application to campaigns and fundraising is not expensive. Testing your appeal or DRTV in a “brain lab” for instance is not expensive. But it can help you to refine your approach or creative to the right audience. And it can help you understand what people feel and are likely to do or not do. It helped me, for instance, in fine-tuning a successful legacy campaign that is still delivering millions of dollars today.
There are tons of potential applications to your communication and fundraising. But for me, the more interesting part is how our memories are formed and how these drive our decisions. Our brain is extremely selective. We remember just the beginning, the peaks, and the end of an experience of a relationship.
What else would you like people to take away from the book?
If I can capture one thing people should stick on their laptop or window, it’s the words of Maya Angelou. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but will never forget how you made them feel”. It’s the experience, not the appeal or the RFM that makes people love and support other people and causes.
Francesco is leading the Supporter Engagement strategy of UNICEF international, accelerating the digital transformation with the target of mobilizing 100 million people to give their voice, time, and money to support children.
Francesco has 25 years of fundraising experience with major nonprofit organizations including UNICEF, UNAIDS, UNHCR, MSF, WWF, and the Red Cross.
Francesco is a Professor of Fundraising at Bologna University and a frequent speaker at international fundraising congresses. He is the author of Emotionraising: How to Astonish, Disturb, Seduce and Convince the Brain to Support Good Causes, published in 2016 by Civil Society Press and Hooked on a Feeling, How Passion and Devotion for Good Causes Become Memories and Identities (2021, Hillborn).