Non-Profits: Your Return Address Labels are Not Gifts. They Are Squeegee Men!

There was a time in New York's history when driving a car into the city meant wondering if a man armed with a water-filled squeegee would clean your windshield, uninvited, as you sat in traffic. The water was often dirty, but you would feel obligated to pay him anyhow, because... well, it was never really conscious why. But it's a perfect illustration of the rule of reciprocity, articulated in the, ahem, influential book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

"By virtue of the reciprocity rule, then, we are obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations, and the like... The impressive aspect of the rule for reciprocation and the sense of obligation that goes with it is its pervasiveness in human culture... [T]here is no human society that does not subscribe to the rule... The rule was established to promote the development of reciprocal relationships so that one person could initiate such a relationship without the fear of loss. If the rule is to serve that purpose, then, an uninvited first favor must have the ability to create an obligation... The obligation to receive reduces our ability to choose whom we wish to be indebted to and puts that power in the hands of others..." - Cialdini (13, 22)

It would appear that a large number of non-profit organizations have read Dr. Cialdini's book--which cites the improve success rate of one veterans organization's mail appeal using pre-gummed address labels. These 501 (c)(3) organizations have collectively decided to send personalized return address labels to potential donors as a way to create a sense of obligation in their recipients. I say this as someone who has personally amassed well over a thousand labels, when I personally send fewer than 20 letters in the mail per year. And it's not just return address labels; I have postcards with illustrations by children who were in various WWII concentration camps (just WHO am I supposed to send these to???), Native American dreamcatchers, and sometimes a shiny penny.

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In fact, the rule of reciprocity is powerful, indeed, but I and so many others have become inured. The proverbial golden goose has been killed. The word "uninvited" resonates more greatly than the word "obligated." I am sympathetic to the goals of many of these organizations, but their approaches to marketing and engagement reveal a laziness and, worse, a lack of authenticity that more likely inspires hostility than generosity. As far as gifts go, these tiny mail-able trinkets are like a tie or pair of socks at Christmastime. 

In fact, the overuse of this thoughtless appeal provides an important lesson to non-profit and for-profit companies alike: people do not want to feel obligated. Emotional connection is so important to establish a relationship, and short-term gains in leveraging a social contract cannot be sustained. Relationship building does require a personal connection, even if the automation of personal connection hasn't yet been fully achieved by technology. But technology--databases and spreadsheets--have made the personalization of engagement more possible on a grand scale than ever before.

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I am almost always more likely to donate if I receive a handwritten note or card than a throwaway gift, but only if I sense that the sender has made an effort to get to know me and what motivates me. In other words, when trying to get a customer to buy or a donor to give, find out why you thought you had a good lead in the first place. Then tailor the message accordingly. Yes, this may take more time and energy than sending out worthless mailing labels. But a little sweat equity goes a long way in business.

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