Sometimes it's the Little Things

First impressions directly relate to trust, and that trust impacts giving

I just returned from a lengthy road trip with my teenaged daughter, and it was an eye-opener in numerous ways. We visited a dozen different cities and nearly that many states — most that I had never been to. About half-way through the trip, I realized that I had been judging the cities based on simple, small interactions I had experienced with the people I met. Since it was at the hotels that we first interacted with residents of the particular city, I got my initial feeling about the area/city based on those first impressions.

I recognize that this might not be a fair way to assess a place, but as human beings, we react based on the input that comes our way. This landmark study in Psychological Science (Willis and Todorov, 2006) was shocking when it came out, as it suggested that first impressions may be made within a tenth of a second of meeting someone. That doesn’t give a lot of “wiggle room” for altering a not-so-great first impression.

In fact, when presented with very short exposures to different faces, the researchers asked “Do you find this person trustworthy?” The participant’s response suggested that judgments about trustworthiness — directly a result of first impressions — are made within milliseconds. It was a bit disturbing to read that as the participant encountered the same faces for longer periods of time, their impression (i.e. feeling of trustworthiness) didn’t change much. As per this Kellogg/Trust Project report, the study’s findings tell us that trustworthiness is something that people judge very automatically, even before we’ve gotten our wits together to really decide how confident we are in our judgment.

The same Kellogg report went even further by applying these findings to determining how trust influences giving (in this case, in the context of investing with a trustee). The upshot of this team’s multiyear research was that we essentially judge people on two dimensions: How warm is this person? So, how benevolent is this person? And how competent is this person? Does this person have the capability of acting on his or her intentions?

In the case of my trip, I was judging the city by what I encountered in these tiny moments of time. More important than the hotel facility itself, my first impressions were set by my interactions (or desire for interactions) with the hotel staff. Applying this to nonprofit fundraising, I now see that, as a donor, many of my decisions about giving to an organization (or not) are a result of that first interaction with a fundraiser.

In one case, I previously gave to an organization that I think is wonderful, and I initially gave them a fairly large (5 figure) donation. I love their work, and I was introduced to the NPO by a colleague and friend. Once I was recognized as a larger donor, I was invited to private events which were led by the organization’s regional director. Unfortunately, this regional director exhibited neither warmth nor authenticity when we met, and zero apparent desire for any kind of relationship. (It felt a bit like being in a room with the “mean girl” in high school.) After attending other events where I got the same impression, I stopped giving. I tried to rationalize this decision (why should the organization suffer because of a single staff person?) but I just couldn’t get past it. I could actually feel the tenacity of that first impression.

Here’s the point — in real-life fundraising interactions, whether they’re online or offline, that first impression you make with a prospective donor has a high probability of impacting your ability to secure a gift from them. As I write in my book:

  • Don’t pander — doing so is sure to create a negative impression

  • Don’t assume. Instead, ask!

  • Be authentic — donors are usually interested in relationships, not transactions

  • Think about who the donor is as an individual

  • Think about how the donor feels (base it on how you would feel in that situation)

  • Be honest (donors can see through a “tap dance”)

  • Share your enthusiasm and dedication to your organization’s mission

Take a look at this article and this article for some great tips from Forbes on creating a positive first impression.

Remember that the impression you give when interacting with someone determines trustworthiness. Trust, in turn, determines giving — not only for now but in the long term.

As family wealth expert Dennis Jaffe wrote in Forbes in 2018, “When trust is present, things go well; but when trust is lost, the relationship is at risk. When trust is intact, we will willingly contribute what is needed, not just by offering our presence, but also by sharing our dedication, talent, energy, and honest thoughts on how the relationship or group is working.”

He adds, “If the level of trust is low in a relationship or organization, people limit their involvement and what they are willing to do or share. But, more often than not, people feel that their distrust is not safe to share. So a leader or loved one may be slow to discover that they have lost a person’s trust.

How can you fix something that is not expressed or shared? How do you even know that trust is lost?”

One way is for the relationship to begin with a positive first impression. If those first milliseconds when you meet someone are engaging (in a good way), then that initial first impression can serve to protect the relationship going forward. If trust is established on day one, then a donor, for example, is more likely to let you know if they have an issue.

It might feel like a little thing, but that initial “meeting” has big ramifications.


I’m Saving Giving by providing a clear path to success, supported by data, statistics, and interviews. You can find more of me lifting the lid on the charitable sector here on Philanthropy 451, in my bestselling book, Philanthropy Revolution, on socials at TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn or listen to this episode of UBS On-Air: In Conversation with Lisa to learn more.

- Lisa