Three persuasion techniques using The Authority Principle

In 1955, researchers in Texas arranged for a 31 year old man to cross a street against a red light and into traffic. Sometimes he was dressed in a suit and tie, and sometimes wore less formal clothing. They discovered that when he was dressed in smart business clothes, more than three times as many pedestrians followed him into the traffic.

In Influence, the psychology of persuasion, Robert Cialdini categorises the fifth principle of influence as Authority. In numerous experiments like the one described above, he shows that the signals we pick up from who is giving us a particular message make a big difference to whether or not we are persuaded to act. I have found that very successful fundraisers make use of all of Cialdini’s principles, but today I will focus only on techniques to raise more money derived from this one. Here are three techniques:

1) Expert positioning. Cialdini demonstrates that when we are told something by an expert, such as a university professor, medical doctor or judge, we are more likely to be swayed by what they say. If you have used Wikipedia you may remember reading a message from the site’s founder, Jimi Wales, asking for a donation. In tests, Wikipedia found that when the request came from Jimi, more people donated.

For example, when describing their innovative Skylight Centres, the UK charity Crisis has found it helpful to mention that the Centres’ effectiveness has been independently evaluated by the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy. This sounds obvious, but I’ve found that though many charities do have endorsing quotes from relevant experts, hidden away in their materials, very few fundraisers are able to proactively include these endorsements in how they explain the power of their services to donors when in conversation.

2) Make use of trappings. Research shows that when professionals wear ‘badges of authority’ (like a doctor’s stethoscope), it affects how credible we perceive the wearer’s advice to be.

Recently I phoned Wateraid and while on hold I enjoyed listening to the sound of African singing, presumably in celebration of the clean water they are enjoying. I know that some UNICEF fundraisers take small packets of re-hydration salts to meetings; and a Breast Cancer Care fundraiser who always keeps in her bag ready for donor meetings, a copy of the excellent Mummy’s Lump, a book to help children understand what their mum may be going through when diagnosed with breast cancer.

Obviously props like these serve as ways to demonstrate impact, but they are also what Cialdini would call ‘trappings of authority’ because they help position you / your organisation as an expert.

3) Apply for and proactively mention awards. There is a reason why movie promoters tell you that the star of their new film is an ‘academy award-winner’. Incredibly quickly it sends a signal that these stars are critically acclaimed.

The truth is, applying for charity or fundraising awards is time consuming, and most would not bother if only doing it for a bit of glory. But this is a tactic that several participants on last years’ Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme implemented to change the way their organisation / services were perceived by donors. They found that the effort was massively paid back. It’s worth noting that not all of them won the award they applied for, but even those who didn’t have discovered that just being short-listed enabled them to frame their charity more powerfully (just as film promoters make full use of the claim ‘academy award-nominated’.

Based on these three ways to harness Authority Power, what ideas do you have that would help you influence your donors?

  • Which authority figure or expert organisation could you secure a quote from to help people understand just how good your charity’s service is?
  • How could you signal to the other person’s subconscious that you represent expertise? What prop or demonstration of your work could you take with you, other than simply a brochure?
  • What award has your charity ever won that you could make more use of in describing your services or partnerships? What award could you apply for now, that will in future help you secure meetings, influence donors or win partnerships?

Need to increase corporate or high value fundraising income? Find out how the Corporate Partnerships and Major Gifts Mastery Programmes would help.