Inside Influence Report, June 2013
For regular worshipers attending Sunday prayers at St. John’s Church in the parish of Kirkheaton, a Yorkshire village in Northern England, the service on 18th November 2012 seemed like it would be pretty much like any other they had attended in the past. As they entered the church some nodded politely in silent recognition to fellow churchgoers who, in turn, would respond with a gentle wave as everyone took their seats. For many it would be the very same seat that they had sat in previous weeks and months.
Nothing at all appeared to be out of the ordinary.
But for the Reverend Richard Steel, Rector of the Church, things that day were anything but ordinary. He had a challenge on his hands. Over the past seven years a successful campaign had been run that had raised almost £500,000 ($750,000) towards repairs to the largely Victorian built church. Sadly though, it still wasn’t enough. The time had come when he needed to persuade his congregation to pull together one more time in a concerted effort to raise the extra funds required to complete the restoration.
But how? He surely recognized that, even though they hadn’t quite hit their target, the church had succeeded in generating an impressive sum of money. He also surely realized that those funds had been raised primarily because of the generosity and fundraising efforts of the local community. Persuading them to give even more was going to be a difficult pitch, but one that he would need to make, and to make convincingly. And make it he did.
Reverend Steel’s strategy was both inspirational and extraordinary. And not only did it provide his church with the much needed funds it required but it also provides us all with a wonderful demonstration of how to successfully deploy a fundamental principle of influence.
Reverend Steel decided that he was going to give away the church’s money.
Tradition holds that at some point during a church service members of the congregation will be expected to delve into a pocket, purse or wallet and place a contribution into a collection box or on a collection plate that is being passed around. But, as the Reverend explained to his bemused audience, that Sunday’s collection would be different. Rather than requesting that the congregation make a contribution to the collection plate they were instead requested to make a withdrawal from it, and at that point a collection plate full of crisp £10 notes (roughly $15) was passed around the church and everybody was given the opportunity to take a note each.
At the end of this extraordinary collection, and having given away £550 ($825) of the church’s money, each recipient was told that they were free to invest the £10 in any way they saw fit in the pursuit of generating a greater return.
It takes a brave Rector to give away his establishments’ resources, but also an insightful one.
The act of providing resources to others first activates the principle of reciprocity, subsequently instilling a powerful sense of obligation in recipients to repay such investments at some point in the future, often accompanied by a healthy return. Marketers know that the offer of a free sample can lead to a much larger purchase that more than compensates them for the initial cost of their ‘gift’. Smart leaders recognize that by being the first to listen, by proactively offering assistance and looking for those they can help rather than those that can help them, typically increase their future influence not only in a cost-effective manner but also in a way that stimulates longer lasting and more productive relationships.
It’s not just persuasion scientists that understand the powerful pull of reciprocity. Sociologists too recognize that in every society there is an obligation to give, to receive and to repay. It is an expectation founded in Society’s Golden Rule which, as part of the socialization process trains each of us, pretty much from birth, to “Give unto others as you would have them give to you.” Notice that this Golden Rule doesn’t state “Give unto others as they have given to you.” The rule advocates that we always take the first step. It was this first step; the action of giving first rather than taking, which Reverend Steel ably demonstrated in his wonderfully executed influence strategy.
But there was something else, crucial to the success of his strategy, that Reverend Steel also recognized.
While it may be the case that society obliges all of us to give back to others the form of behavior, gift or service we have first been given, it is also the case that today’s overloaded society can provide us with so much, that it can be difficult to distinguish between the very resources we have been afforded in the first place. The ubiquity of free trials and samples will often crowd out other free trials and samples. Valuable information can quickly be overshadowed by other valuable information. The provision of help and assistance to a customer or a co-worker might quickly be trumped by help and assistance provided by a competitor or a cut-throat colleague.
In such a context it is both saddening and sobering to recognize that, nowadays, simply being the first to give often won’t be enough. Increasingly an additional ingredient is needed in order to bolster our efforts so that they
rise above the quagmire of the efforts of others.
That ingredient is unexpectedness.
There were likely several approaches that the Reverend Steel could have employed to get across his message about the need to raise more money for his restoration efforts. For example, he could have invited members of his congregation to a fundraiser meeting to brainstorm new ideas making sure to offer coffee and cookies first in an effort to oblige more people to attend. He could have reminded the congregation of all the great work the c
hurch had performed over the years assisting the local community before making a request for further help. Both these approaches could be considered examples of reciprocity in action yet, given their relative expectedness, it would be hard to see how they would have garnered any more than a modest response.
But by completely turning his church’s weekly collection routine on its head, not only did Reverend Steel’s actions align to the reciprocity principle’s requirement to go first; such was the unexpectedness of what was given that it had an immediate impact.
The lessons here seem clear. When seeking to influence and persuade others, it is seldom enough to just consider what you provide first. Increasingly it is becoming necessary to consider how what you do provide first is different from the norm. Scripting a handwritten note or cover letter rather than a typed one. Sending a ‘Looking forward to doing business with you’ card to a new client. Placing a postage stamp on an envelope rather than running it through the automated system in the post room (not only is this unexpected but it also communicates a sense of personalization as your message now comes from another person not a machine).
Sometimes the changes required are small ones, but they can lead to much improved results.
Speaking of results, what came of Reverend Steel’s £550 ($825) investment? Well last month the local BBC news team who covered the original story returned to Kirkheaton to find out and what they discovered was nothing short of astonishing. Pretty much everyone who accepted the £10 had put the money to good use and in some enterprising ways. Some used the money to buy ingredients to bake cakes and then held a cake sale. One person used the money to advertise a Dog Walking Service raising funds in the process. Children from the local school bought seeds and sold the resulting produce. Others used the money to buy goods from E-Bay that they sold on at a profit. In just six months Reverend Steel’s initial investment in his congregation yielded £10,000 ($15,000) an almost twenty-fold return!
That’s pretty impressive return on investment that even Warren Buffet would perhaps approve of. It is also a wonderful example of how a small change can sometimes lead to big differences when one deploys the persuasive power of an unexpected gift.
Questions for comments
1. What is the most unexpected gift you either gave to someone or received?
2. What effect did it have on them (on you)?
3. What examples do you have that worked in business?