Elephants, Triggers, and Actions: Applying Behavior Theories to Our Nonprofits and Our Work

Submitted by Annaliese on Mon, 04/04/2011 - 12:51pm

For those of you who have read Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath – or if you were at the 2011 NTC and saw Dan's Plenary – you've probably already started thinking about the Direct-Motivate-Shape the Path triumverate for helping people change their behavior.

I've got another triumverate for you, courtesy of Dr. BJ Fogg, founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University:


According to Dr. Fogg, B (behavior) happens when Motivation, Ability, and Triggers coincide. The concepts are similar to the Heath brothers' steps in that they point to the same underlying characteristics and needs in human behavior. The difference is that Fogg's focuses on the formula (how to tweak the relationship of M-A-T to achieve your behavior goal), while the Heaths' work looks at the process of identifying and accomplishing the separate components of their triumverate.

Getting lost in the particulars of the different theories is for academics, not us. What matters for the nonprofit and advocacy sectors is that we understand what these experts have to say about what causes a person to act. It seems they're saying the same thing:

  • Be VERY CLEAR about the action you want your audience to take (Direct/Trigger)
  • Appeal to their core decision-making character, which is EMOTIONAL rather than rational (Motivate/Motivation)
  • Make it VERY EASY to carry out the action (Shape the Path/Ability)

This has obvious applications for us as we create donation or advocacy campaigns, whether it's with email, video, mobile phones, or social networks. The communications team at your nonprofit is probably looking at this and saying: "Yes, we get this, and we can do this."

But this should also be applied to our overall work and strategies. This strategy should apply to our databases, shopping carts, website information architecture, and our internal systems and infrastructure for staff efficiency (so, IT staff, this is for you, too). It should apply to our organizational management (so, you too, Leadership staff), volunteer management and constituent interactions (and you, as well, Program Staff).

And yes, this also applies to the grassroots: anyone who has a cause they feel passionately about and for which they'd like to make an impact.

If you're looking for more resources on these theories: