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?
It’s good to surprise people when you know enough about their wants or needs to be able to deliver something that they will appreciate.
When thinking about surprising your supporters and potential supporters, remember these six lessons we can learn from the two stories I just shared:
Lesson 1: Not all surprises are good. Minimize the bad surprises.
Lesson 2: Make sure, if you’re going to surprise someone, that your surprise will be well received.
Lesson 3: In order for your surprise to be well received, you need to know your audience. So, do your homework before surprising someone.
Lesson 4: A well-executed surprise can enhance relationships and get you a customer or donor for life.
Lesson 5: Create an organizational culture that encourages staff to surprise others in positive, appropriate ways.
Lesson 6: Yes, it’s OK to surprise donors and prospective donors. Actually, it’s more than just OK; it’s a good idea. Just make sure to pay attention to Lessons 1-5.
Positive surprises can help you cultivate strong relationships with donors and prospective donors. While this will lead to longer-term support and higher average gifts, don’t surprise folks just for those reasons alone. Surprise them because it’s also simply a nice thing to do. For all those reasons, it will leave you feeling good, too.
Over the years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the organizations I’ve been involved with. My alma mater surprised me once with a pair of football tickets in the President’s Box. OK, it’s not as if I had attended Alabama — I attended Temple University — but it was still a very nice gesture. I appreciated it. It revitalized my relationship with the University.
The Luna Theater Company invited donors, patrons, and community members to a free open-house to see the site of its future home. You can read about it in my post “Overcome Challenges thru Collaboration.” The event featured the reading of a play, a short dance performance, soft-drinks, wine, and hors d’oeuvres. Being invited to such a high-value, free event happily surprised me. I already had a positive feeling about Luna. Now, I’m an active booster.
At times, I’ve also been the recipient of unpleasant surprises from the nonprofit organizations I support. You’ll find one such story at: “10 Tips to Save You from Becoming a Horrible Warning.”
The key for any organization is to minimize the instances of unpleasant surprises, and maximize the happy ones. It’s a matter of being thoughtful, not extravagant. But, it’s not a matter of just doing something special. It’s about making Unbridled Acts part of your organization’s culture. It’s about making random acts of kindness routine.
When being thoughtful, remember that it’s about the other person, not you. So, you can’t rely on following the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” Instead, follow the Platinum Rule of Tony Alessandra, PhD, CSP, CPAE: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”
I’d like to hear about some of the ways you pleasantly surprise your donors and prospective donors. What are some of things you’ve done that folks weren’t expecting, but that made their day? What do you do to cultivate a donor-centered culture in your organization? Please share your thoughts below so that we can all benefit from an exchange of creative, surprising ideas.
That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?