The Power of Priming – What to do if your hard work is still not getting results

Many fundraisers I know are working hard but still not getting the results they want. Effort is clearly important, but there is another less obvious tactic you can also apply to increase your chances of success.

One powerful strategy is to deliberately engage your sub-conscious mind in achieving your results, through a technique called ‘priming’. Before exploring some ways to do this in practice, here are some examples that psychologists have found of the extraordinary ‘priming effect’.

In one research study, participants who were primed by looking at pictures associated with being busy — briefcases, commuter trains, people in suits etc — went on to behave more competitively than participants who had looked at different pictures.

And amazingly, Michael Slepian at Tufts University even noticed during a study on creativity that participants generated more creative and insightful ideas when they had been primed with an exposed light bulb! The more of these examples I’ve looked at, the more clear it becomes that the subconscious mind operates in ways that defy the logic used by our rational minds. Metaphors are much more powerful than most people realise.

Professor John Bargh of Yale University even found that if you have just held a warm cup of coffee you’re more likely to judge strangers as having ‘warm’ personalities. Prof Bargh suggests ‘primes’ are like whistles that can only be heard by our mental ‘inner butler’. Once roused, these dutiful servants act on your pre-existing tendencies.

And if you don’t positively prime with useful stimuli, I suggest your behaviour will get ‘dutifully’ primed by the negative stimuli already out there. Bad news is always available, so be sure to find and focus on what will serve your fundraising / charities’ mission.

Four ways you can harness the Power of Priming to help you raise more money:

  1. Make it personal. Last year I interviewed a very successful Director of Fundraising to find out how she achieves so much. Though of course the same kinds of setbacks and disappointments must befall her as the rest of us, why was it, I wanted to know, that she was managing to keep getting so much done. She told me that every morning she writes in her notebook the name of one child who she is dedicating her day’s work to helping.
  2. Read or share stories every morning. In one famous study of telephone fundraisers, one group shared accounts of students who had benefited from the hardship fund scholarships. It was found that the group who were primed by these stories raised twice as much income as those who did not.
  3. Make it visible. Your senses are aware of information that your conscious mind is not focussing on. Fiona Duffy, Director of Development at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge harnessed this power by playfully sabotaging an image of the G8 leaders, seven of whom were middle-aged men in grey suits. To help stay motivated on difficult days, Fiona gave her subconscious a view of the fairer world she is working towards, by adding long hair and colourful dresses to half the G8 leaders.
  4. Dream 10. One reason people who attend my Corporate Mastery Programme win more partnerships is that I help them focus on just a few truly lucrative partnerships they would like to build. The truth is, you and your colleagues are always better connected than you realise. So to maximise the chances that everyone will remember their previously-forgotten contacts, we create a Dream 10 Partners poster to go on the wall by your desk, to share with board members and colleagues. Note, because the subconscious works at an emotional level, we have found the best way to do this is using the company logos rather than the names of companies.