Bridget Spence and DaisyHere at Event 360, we know from experience that fundraising events are a team effort. Teams work best when people get to know one another as this fosters positive collaboration. So, with this in mind, each month one of our employees will tell their story here. We hope you enjoy getting to know members of Team360. This month, meet Bridget Spence:

In my capacity as Event 360’s Boston-area Field Coordinator, I spend a large chunk of my week interacting with some of Boston’s most motivated walkers and volunteers. Most of the walkers and volunteers I interact with are energized and inspired. I have found over the years that their positive attitudes are contagious – no matter how hard my own week, after a good chat with a longtime volunteer, I return to my work with renewed vigor. 

Last week, however, I spent an evening with a Boston area fundraiser who was struggling to motivate this year. After two hours of speaking with her off and on, I noticed she kept returning to one seminal event – her father had complained about her constant fundraising efforts. After deeper probing on my part, I found this one negative interaction had completely colored every other fundraising interaction for her this year. She refused to talk about the $1,600 she had already raised and thwarted my attempts at encouragement and optimism. Instead, she kept coming back to that one time her father said, “No.” I spent the rest of my week searching for veteran teams and fun, supportive individual walkers in her neighborhood. I wanted to make sure this walker was supported beyond what I could offer in my limited 40 hour work week. I knew that if she wasn’t supported, even if she raised thousands of dollars and walked this year, once she returned home to her father, the pessimism would arise again and she might not return to the walk next year.

I can quote some anecdotal evidence that the “Power of Positive Thinking” is real and can be applied to fundraising strategy, but after that participant interaction, I wanted to dig a little deeper and analyze that fundraiser’s black hole. Can we change a participant’s mindset? If so, how should we utilize optimism to impact the bottom line for our non-profit clients?

Some of our regular blog readers may recall Jenn Gross’s March 2011 post about the power of teams. In that post, Jenn mentions a joint Event 360 and Convio study that found “nearly all participants who belong to a team raise more money than those who don’t. Additionally, team members are more likely to stay engaged until the day of the event, and become repeat participants.” I would argue that this research doesn’t just highlight the power of teams, but also highlights the power of positive thinking in the non-profit space.

It turns out modern science supports Event 360’s observations! A 2008 study by researchers at Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego found that happiness spreads through social networks. Researchers found that, when a person becomes happy, a friend living close by has a 25 percent higher chance of becoming happy themselves. A spouse experiences an 8 percent increased chance and for next-door neighbors, it’s 34 percent. Perhaps even more importantly for Event 360’s non-profit clients is the study’s finding that the happiness effect extends beyond that immediate social circle; when one person becomes happy, the social network effect can spread up to 3 degrees — reaching friends of friends!

According to Dr. Michael Scheier, who was the first to report on the power of positive thinking in 1985, “optimism is clearly associated with better psychological health, as seen through lower levels of depression, anxiety, and general distress, when facing difficult life circumstances, …optimism is [also] connected to positive physical health outcomes, including decreases in the likelihood of re-hospitalization following surgery, the risk of developing heart disease, and mortality.”

More importantly for non-profits, Dr. Scheier points out that optimists are better problem solvers with better coping strategies. Optimists, more than pessimists, try to improve a situation rather than deny, avoid, or dwell on negative feelings.

If happiness and optimism are contagious, and optimists are better problem solvers, non-profits should take some cues from modern psychology, and try to foster optimism within their organization and throughout your events! Fostering team building is a wonderful way to do that. Rid your communications of “negative self-talk.” Make your event more optimistic and your event participants will, in turn, become optimists right along with you. I’ve taken a few of the Mayo Clinic’s suggestions for practicing positive thinking and altered them to fit the non-profit space.

  • Identify Areas to Change: If you want to become more optimistic and engage in more positive thinking, first identify negatives that keep coming up amongst your supporters and participants.  Evaluate that objection or hurdle as an organization and find ways to combat that negative with a positive.  If you think your participants are worried about the economy, highlight budget friendly fundraising events. Similarly, don’t call attention to any negative media about your organization or your movement directly, instead change the conversation. Optimism might not be good for news headlines, but it is good for your supporters and donors! Whenever you feel the need to focus on a negative or a scapegoat for why your organization isn’t reaching its goals, surround your participants with positivity instead.
  • Surround your participants with positive people. Where can you inject optimistic messaging- in emails, on your website, and on Facebook posts? Could you send handwritten notes of encouragement from staff or other volunteers to first time participants or participants who have not yet started fundraising? Whenever possible, have your most successful volunteers share their real life stories of overcoming adversity and reaching fundraising, training, or personal goals. Any time you can highlight a longtime supporters’ story, do it! Surround your first time participants with support virtually.
  • Surround your participants with positive people (cont.). Don’t just highlight participant success stories in emails or on your website, find ways to connect participants with one another. There is no substitute for in-person interactions. Find opportunities to get your first time participants and long time participants and team captains into a room together. Allow your participants to sign up for an event-specific social network. Connect participants who live near each other so that they can support one another, after all, optimism is contagious!
  • Be Open to Humor: Studies have shown that laughter reduces stress. Try to reduce your participants’ pre-event stress levels by sharing funny stories from veteran walkers and volunteers. Inside jokes go a long way, not only in relieving stress, but also in fostering a greater sense of community and camaraderie. Stories from the “trenches” can also give your first time participants a pre-event glimpse into what to expect on that event weekend!

In my work with non-profit leaders, more often than not they soften their ask or feel they have to defend a registration fee or fundraising minimum. It goes without saying the economy has been tough the past few years. It’s time now to change the conversation. Stop softening your ask. Stop defending the wonderful work you do. Focus on the positive. Let’s all agree to focus on happier messaging: use phrases full of hope, share stories of accomplishments in the face of great adversity, inject humor whenever possible, and shine a light on those everyday people who have changed the world.

Bridget Spence is a Field Coordinator at Event 360, leading motivational meetings in the Boston area to encourage fundraising and activism in the fight against cancer. Bridget is also a seven-year survivor of Stage IV breast cancer, who knows firsthand about the power of positive thinking. You can follow her cancer journey on her personal blog, My Big Girl Pants: Life, Love and Hope in the Face of Metastatic Breast Cancer.

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