Podcast: Science-Backed Strategies to Help You Find Your Fundraising Flow with Mallory Erickson
Season 3, Episode 8
Amy welcomes guest, Mallory Erickson, to discuss how to use science-backed strategies to help fundraisers raise more money. Listen to learn behavior change strategies to help you overcome your fear of fundraising, in addition to new habits and tools to improve your fundraising.
Today you’re in for a special treat because I have a guest who’s talking about fundraiser behavior. Today on the show we’ve got Mallory Erickson who’s going to talk about science-backed strategies to help you find your fundraising flow.
Hi, I’m Amy Eisenstein. Andrea’s not with me today, but she’ll be back next week. Today I have a very special guest, Mallory Erickson. Mallory is an executive coach, fundraising consultant and host of the podcast, What The Fundraising. Aimed at supporting nonprofit leaders to fundamentally change the way they lead and fundraise.
Through her signature framework, the Power Partners Formula, Mallory provides unique tools to help nonprofits fundraise more from foundations, corporate partners and individuals. As of 2022, she had trained over 40,000 fundraisers using her unique win-win framework.
So welcome Mallory. Thank you so much for joining me.
Thank you so much for having me.
We were introduced by my friend, mentor, colleague, Jay Love. So I want to give a shout-out to our mutual friend Jay, and thank him for putting us in touch.
I’m super-excited to be talking to you today, Mallory. And we have some really very interesting and cool topics to talk about. And we’re going to be focused on some science-backed strategies to find your fundraising flow.
So before we dive in, why don’t you just share a little bit about yourself. And if you’re willing, share about how you felt like a fundraising fraud, and how you overcame that feeling.
Yeah. Well, thank you so much and thank you for that introduction.
Meet Mallory Erickson
So I, like so many fundraisers became an accidental fundraiser. I started to get promoted up through nonprofits and first found myself in a managing director role. And then an Executive Director role that came with big fundraising responsibilities. And not having gone through any formal fundraising training or ever, maybe, built an identity really as a fundraiser, I felt like I must be a bad fundraiser. Because I was wildly uncomfortable in my body.
I had a lot of self-doubt and chatter in my head. I felt this real tension to be perfect, to be presenting as perfect. To be sort of performing in a certain way and that that would impact my fundraising success. But also that the fact that I felt uncomfortable must be a bad sign. I just had this narrative in my head that there was no way that good fundraisers felt like this. Or good fundraisers wanted to throw up before a major donor meeting.
And so it kind of always felt like there was this secret hidden under some rug and I didn’t even know where the rug was. And so I ended up really actually getting to this moment of very serious burnout. I developed chronic pain and I started to think about, “I think I need to leave the nonprofit sector.” I really felt like a lot of the tension was coming from me not knowing how to be me as a fundraiser.
How Mallory Overcame Fundraising Self-Doubt
So I ended up getting executive coach certified. I got trained in habit and behavior design and design thinking. The intention was not that it was going to be applied to my fundraising. But because I was still in a fundraising role at that time, I ended up using all of those tools in my day-to-day experience as a fundraiser. And really executive coaching first, really understanding the way that the thoughts and the beliefs that I held were informing how I felt, was such an empowering concept for me. That fundraising didn’t have to feel the way that it was feeling.
If I could shift my orientation to what good fundraising was really about. And that I could find my own alignment and integrity. And design fundraising practices around the real me. And that that actually in many ways is what the behavioral science tells us is the most effective fundraising anyways. So it really opened up this opportunity for me to fundraise in a fundamentally different way. The results financially were tremendous, but even more than that was that I started to love fundraising. And so I always say, if I could love fundraising, anyone can love fundraising. And so that’s a little bit of my journey here.
Yeah. Thank you for sharing your story. I think that’s such a powerful and relatable story. And gives hope for so many fundraisers who are secretly feeling like:
“Can I do this? I get that sick feeling. I don’t want to do this.”
Or whatever’s happening, you think as a fundraiser, you should feel comfortable and good at it. But secretly probably, or maybe not so secretly, so many fundraisers are harboring these feelings. And it really is impeding their success.
Tools to Find the Fundraising Flow and Eliminate Self-Doubt
And so if there are any tools and strategies, which I know we’re going to talk about today, to help fundraisers get over some of those knot in the stomach kind of, butterflies in the stomach kind of feelings, I’m excited to hear more. So I know you do some thinking about and talking about science-backed strategies for reinvigorating fundraising.
So let’s get started. Tell me what that means and what that looks like. And maybe provide an example.
Yeah, so there are three different ways that I really think about and do research around different types of science and how they relate to fundraisers:
- One is the science of habit and behavior design. I studied under Dr. BJ Fogg. And so really thinking about how we design our fundraising habits to be in alignment with what helps us get over the action line.
- The other piece of science that I think is really important is psychology and neuroscience around our nervous system in particular. What are the types of activities that activate our sympathetic nervous system? Our flight/fight response? And what are strategies to down-regulate our nervous system so that we can come back into our bodies when things feel risky or scary? Which fundraising is just like the most activating activity in so many ways.
- And then the third piece is really looking at the behavioral science of how humans behave in certain situations.
A Fundraiser’s Behavior Impacts a Donor’s Behavior
And behavioral science is used very commonly in fundraising strategies around donor behavior. And I like to look at behavioral science from the perspective of a fundraiser’s behavior. Because a fundraiser’s behavior is impacting donor behavior. It’s a number one impact on donor behavior.
So I think if we can look at the science around fundraiser behavior, make the actions easier to do, help decrease the fear, down-regulate the nervous system. Those are the things that are ultimately going to help us raise a lot more money.
So one very simple scientific proven way to down-regulate your nervous system around fundraising fears, are to acknowledge and validate how you’re feeling. So I shared, “I felt like I was a bad fundraiser because I felt uncomfortable walking into a major donor meeting.” That discomfort is actually incredibly normal. Anytime our body senses risk in any way, it starts to send off some of those stress hormones.
And going into a major donor meeting does involve some risk, potentially risk of rejection. Potentially a risk of awkwardness, right, these moments. And so it’s very normal for our nervous system to start to get activated and stress. A stress response is not the problem. The issue is when a stress response stays chronic, that’s what leads to burnout. But a regulated nervous system is us feeling that stress, feeling that, well, knot in our belly, and then having tools to down-regulate.
So two science-backed tools for that exact moment are one, acknowledging and validating how you feel in that moment. One of the ways we get stuck in that spiral and keep our nervous system activated is that we gaslight our own emotions. And we’re like, “I’ve done this so many times, I should just be confident. This should be normal now.” And then we can’t actually get out of that spiral.
So we can acknowledge and validate our emotions by just saying something as simple as:
“Yeah, that makes sense. That makes sense that my body is lighting up right now. Makes total sense that I feel the way that I do.”
And just giving ourselves that moment of acknowledgement, of validation. We can also use something called distanced self-talk. Which is using our first name with a positive statement. So, “You can do this Mallory.” Or, “Mallory, you’ve had many successful meetings before. You can have another one right now.” When we use our own first name, it’s been scientifically proven to help pull us into more of an observer mode. And that helps us get out of some kind of tunnel vision, binary, black and white thinking. And we can see the situation more as an observer and be our own cheerleader.
Acknowledge the Authenticity of Your Nervousness
Oh my gosh, I love that. I think those are such brilliant things. First of all, validating and acknowledging that you’re feeling nervous is, instead of trying to push it down or hide it or run away from the fact. Often when I’m teaching fundraisers, I actually tell them to tell the donor that they’re feeling anxious as a way of acknowledging it and validating, I didn’t even know it was scientifically-backed. I just sort of, on instinct said:
“This will defuse the tension in the room because your donors probably nervous too.”
Or even if they’re not, whether or not they are, them knowing you are will help them be more sympathetic, and a better participant in the process. And it will alleviate some of the tension. And so I love that.
Can I tell you that, actually what you just said is another science supported thing as well? So yes, it regulates your nervous system to say it in the donor meeting. But the science of connection also supports that when we tell someone vulnerably how we feel in a moment, we create a more co-regulated nervous system between each other and we’re more connected.
So the science of Carole Robin really supports exactly what you just said. That sharing that with the donor is both from a behavioral science perspective and your own neuroscience, so amazing.
The Importance of Positive Self-Talk
Yeah, that’s great. I want to go back to this positive self-talk for a minute, because that also sounds great. I mean, I would like to look in the mirror every morning and say, “Amy, you’re doing a great job.” I mean, I don’t know if I’d believe myself the first time. But after you say it a few times and once you start to mean it, I’m sure it really does make a difference. I mean, that’s not the exact example you used. I love the way you said it, how else can people give themselves some positive self-talk pep talks?
So this is such an important thing, what you just said. Because oftentimes we don’t feel like we deserve to be celebrated for small things. And we speak so much more kindly to everybody else than we do to ourselves. So sometimes we need help being able to pull ourselves out of our own experience.
So if you’re struggling to say a positive thing in your own name, for example, maybe what you could ask yourself is, “Okay, if a friend came to me with this exact scenario, what would I say to them?” And that might help you activate some empathy for someone you love that you couldn’t access. So that’s one way to help kind of pull you out of that. But also starting to build in just practices of, in behavioral science, we call it shine. Celebrating the behavior that you exhibit and even doing it for really little things.
So we speak negatively to ourselves all day long. And then we think if we say one nice thing to ourselves that that’s like self-love. And it’s like we have to build that muscle:
- So sometimes when I’m really struggling with something, I write nice things on my bathroom mirror to myself. I know I’m going to have trouble remembering to say nice things in my head. I’m in it, I’m going through something. So I’ll write myself little notes, so that I say it out loud when I do that.
- Or, I try to build a habit where when I’m washing my face, I’m saying nice things to myself.
- Or at the end of the day, I look back at my calendar and I say, “What am I proud of myself for today?”
And just those tiny little moments, that’s how we build habits too. Because we don’t want to do things that we’re mean to ourselves around. So if you’re really mean to yourself about fundraising, there’s no way you could ever like fundraising, because you’re so critical of yourself in the whole process.
And so recognizing that starting to build a healthier relationship with yourself and starting building that muscle, it’s not going to happen overnight. That that’s going to start to improve how you feel about those things that you’re doing.
Yeah, I think that’s such a good point. Because we can all relate to this idea of, if you did something that you perceive as stupid, you said something to a donor that maybe you wish you hadn’t said. You replay that in your mind over and over and over. You go to bed thinking about it, you dream about it, you wake up thinking about it.
But on the flip side, it’s probably pretty rare that you go to bed thinking, “I did something really great today. I said something really smart to a donor.” And you wake up thinking, “Oh my gosh, I had such a great meeting with a donor.”
So maybe every day on your ride home from work or your commute, if you’re working from home up and down the stairs. And think about:
“What’s one nice thing that I did today? What’s one smart thing I did that I can remind myself of.”
Instead of just replaying that thing that you wish you hadn’t said? Right.
Building Positive Fundraising Habits
Let’s go to habits for a minute. You talked early on about good fundraising habits. So in addition, of course, to positive self-talk and validating yourself, what else can we try and institute as a habit?
Yeah. So one of the things to think about. So a habit happens when, or any behavior happens when three things come together. We have enough ability to take the action, we have enough motivation to take the action, and we’re prompted to take the action.
So there’s so many, I mean, there are millions of fundraising behaviors that we could think about inside there. But I would think about for folks who are listening, what’s an action that you’re struggling to do?
- Maybe it’s picking up a phone and calling donors.
- Or maybe it’s clicking send on an email. And then the way you would use the habit and behavior design model is to think about, “How can I make the action easier to do?” And this can be making it so easy.
So for example, if you’re having trouble calling donors for thank you calls. The habit you should start with is writing the donor’s phone number down on a piece of paper. That’s your day one habit. Or maybe your day one habit is even smaller than that. Looking up the donor’s phone number in the CRM and screenshotting it or something on your phone.
And then maybe the next day it’s writing out that number on a post-it next to your desk. And then the next day it’s just dialing that number in your phone. And then the next day it’s clicking call. And so I think we confuse simple and easy a lot when it comes to fundraising habits. Making a phone call is a simple action, but it is a hard action because it’s scary. And so especially when there’s a lot of fear involved, you want to make the habit, the action as easy as possible to do.
So outreach emails, one day you’d write the email. But make the goal not sending the outreach email. One day, write the email. And then the next day click send on the emails in your draft. Or have your coworker click send on the emails in your draft. There are ways that we can design these things to get ourselves over the action line even when the tasks are scary.
Yes. Right. So what would be an example of a prompt or a motivation in those cases?
Helpful Prompts to Build Better Habits
Yeah, so anytime you’re having trouble getting over the action line, the first thing to look at is like, “Am I being prompted to take this action?”
So a prompt could be something like a time block on your calendar. So this time every day I’m going to send out my emails, or I’m going to write the emails. That’s that same time block every day. Or sometimes it’s really helpful to anchor a habit to another habit.
So inside Power Partners, we do something called the Fearless 15. Where the first 15 minutes of every day are two to five minute tasks that scare you. So you know that you’re going to have an uncomfortable 15 minutes, but then it’s going to be done. And you don’t need to be fearless all the time. You just need to have these fearless 15 minutes. And then part of what helps with that motivation line is what I mentioned before around acknowledging and validating how we feel.
So knowing that it’s normal that we feel uncomfortable can actually help decrease the fear and down-regulate our nervous system. So we’ve made the action really easy to do. We’ve normalized the fact that it’s uncomfortable, so it doesn’t mean it’s a bad sign. Because when we think something is surprisingly uncomfortable, our brain starts to say, “Oh, you shouldn’t do this.” Right?
“You shouldn’t do this.” Instead of being able to say, “Okay, yeah. It makes total sense that the butterflies are in my belly. I expected that to be here. But all I have to do is be fearless for one second while I one eye close and click send on the email.” Or while the person next to me clicks send on the email. And you have that prompt on your calendar either at the beginning of the day, if you use the Fearless 15. Or somewhere else.
You can also have prompts where you pair people up and people are responsible for prompting each other. So just thinking about different ways that you can do it. You can set alarms on your phone. Anything that reminds you of something.
Yeah. I love that. I mean, I’m a big fan of accountability partners. But short of that, you can certainly use technology to prompt yourself in all the ways you’ve mentioned. One of the things that you talk about, and I think we’ve been talking about it without calling it this, is Fundraising Flow. Why don’t you tell listeners what you mean by fundraising flow. And yes, talk about it.
Getting into the Fundraising Flow State
Yeah. Okay. So the executive coach certification that I have is through an organization called iPEC. And we have a framework around what’s called energy leadership. And in that framework, there are really two primary types of energy:
- Catabolic energy, which is a really defeating depleting energy. It’s where we find ourselves in a lot of judgment, black and white thinking, right and wrong perfectionism.
- And then we have anabolic energy. Anabolic energy is a fueling energy and expanding energy. It’s where we see a prism of opportunities. Win-win lives there, joy and connection.
Anabolic energy, we could also map that totally against our nervous systems as well. But anabolic energy is what feels really fueling and flow state. So when you’ve left a meeting, for example, and three hours went by. And where did the time go? You were in a flow state, you were in a connected state, your nervous system was really grounded, and you felt like you were in your integrity, in your body, in your authentic self.
And so finding your fundraising flow is really about optimizing and choosing the energy that you show up with every day. And recognizing that you do have some choice there. That there are a lot of things in fundraising that feel like environmental factors that activate our nervous systems in different ways. And I think I find it to be really empowering to recognize that there are a lot of tools out there for us to be able to regulate our nervous system in the moment.
Think about hope, which helps drive motivation up. What would happen if. Get curious about things. All of those things lead us to more anabolic energy, and that’s where we find more of that flow state. So the first step is really just awareness. Starting to notice, when do you fall into your perfectionist tendencies? When do you find yourself being more paralyzed to take an action? And then one, acknowledging and validating how you feel.
And then start to get curious. “I wonder why the impact report always activates my perfectionism? What am I afraid of there? What would happen if I sent it out as it is right now?” And just really genuinely get curious. Because curiosity also starts to bring us into anabolic energy because we move out of that right or wrong. And the black and white thinking.
Yeah. So that’s a little bit about optimizing that flow state.
Yeah, I absolutely love that. I want more anabolic energy in my life. I love this concept of flowing with joy and optimism and win-win, all of those positive words that you talked about. And really even thinking about which colleagues. When you’re around them, what kind of vibration are you in? Who are you attracted to? Not physically, not sexually, that’s not what I’m talking about. But when are you in those positive states of happiness vibrations, which donors bring you joy? Which colleagues bring you joy? And how can you generate more of that and reflect more of that back onto them?
So I think that is really a lot of wonderful food for thought. Alright. What would you like to leave our listeners with? What final pieces of advice and wisdom?
I would just say, because I know one of the things we’ve talked about before is just the state of overwhelm and burnout in the sector right now after a really hard few years and the current economic climate. And that a lot of people might be hearing this and feel like they’re light years away from that anabolic energy that I described.
Always Try to be Honest with Yourself
And so number one, to just normalize that wherever you’re at, meet yourself where you’re at. That’s why I brought up the acknowledge and validate piece. If you take nothing else away, it’s like, be honest with yourself. Give yourself some space to be honest about where you’re at. And acknowledge and validate how you’re feeling. And then just start to bring some awareness to the things that, Amy, that you were just saying. Start to bring some awareness to the moments that feel better and the moments that feel a little bit worse. And just start to notice how you respond to the world.
And something super important with this is to notice with compassion. So one of the things that’s really hard… The last thing I want you to do is leave this podcast and then notice yourself go into catabolic energy. And be like, “Oh my God, there I go again. In catabolic energy.” We all experience catabolic energy every day. That’s very normal.
Like I said before, a regulated nervous system does not mean we do not experience stress. It’s that we know how to come out of stress. And we’re not in a chronic stressed state, which leads us ultimately to burnout. But wherever you are, I think just giving yourself the same compassion you would give other people, acknowledging and validating where you’re at. And then just starting to notice how you move through the world and bring some awareness. Those would be the main things that I would just start to play with and see how it impacts how you start to move through your fundraising.
That’s great. Mallory, where can listeners find you if they’re interested in learning more?
Yes, you can go to my website, malloryerickson.com. If you want to learn more about Power Partners, you’ll find more information there as well. I have a free community through What The Fundraising, which is just whatthefundraisingcommunity.com as well. And subscribe to the podcast because you’ll hear, where all of my learning comes from is through a lot of scientists and behavioral scientists and experts who are talking about all these things.
Typically, not for the nonprofit sector, but what we do on the show is really translate them for fundraisers for the nonprofit sector. So those are the best ways. Or you can find me on Instagram, LinkedIn, all the things.
All the places. Excellent.
Except for Twitter. I haven’t figured that one out yet.
Oh, well, I’m off Twitter these days. So that’s fine. Alright, great. Well, this has really been enlightening. I so appreciate you joining us and sharing your story and your learnings. And being willing to share all this wonderful knowledge with our listeners. So thank you for being here.
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