Different surprises can produce radically different outcomes. So, before I address my headline question, let’s look at two stories from outside the fundraising world that can provide some insight.
Dame Jane Goodall, PhD, the world’s foremost authority on chimpanzees and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, was invited to speak at an international conference. To welcome Goodall to her hotel room and to provide her with something to snack on, conference planners arranged for a salmon, complete with tasty accessories, to be delivered to her room.
The salmon might have been a nice, delicious surprise for a weary traveler except for one important thing: Goodall is a vegan. Rather than being pleased with the surprise, Goodall was offended and disgusted by it. She was definitely not happy.
Conference planners could easily have averted the problem with the Goodall-surprise if they had first done a bit of research.
By contrast, the Red Robin gourmet-hamburger restaurant chain has developed a culture that encourages its employees to provide “Unbridled Acts.” Red Robin defines this as “random acts of kindness [employees] bestow upon restaurant Guests and other Team Members.” The acts focus on the target individual and what will make that person happy.
For example, ABCNews.com reported that a Red Robin manager in North Carolina surprised Amie and Jason Sivon. During a visit to their local Red Robin, with their two-year-old son, the Sivons chatted briefly with the manager. The manager joked that the meal might be a very pregnant Amie’s last before giving birth to her second child.
When the Sivons got their check, they saw that the restaurant had removed the cost of Amie’s $11.50 meal from the bill. A note was entered on to the check: “MOM 2 BEE GOOD LUC.”
“The manager said nothing to us about it,” Jason told ABCNews.com. “We were already happy with the service so that action really blew us away. I looked at my wife and told her that I guessed we would be coming here more often.”
Kevin Caulfield, a Red Robin spokesperson, explained the company’s corporate culture to ABCNews.com, “These kinds of random acts of kindness in our restaurants are part of our culture. Our team members, day in and day out, will bestow these random acts. They’re empowered to do special things for our guests to make the experience a great one for our guests.”
Red Robin takes Unbridled Acts so seriously that the company even devotes a section on its website to tell the stories customers share in letters, emails, and phone calls. Some stories involve comping a customer. Another story involves staff cheerfully searching through the garbage to find a customer’s lost key card. The stories are varied, but they all involve doing something special and unexpected for someone else. Some are particularly touching.
Red Robin knows how to surprise folks in small but wonderful ways.
So, when is it OK to surprise your donors and prospective donors?