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When Leadership is Fraught with Cognitive Dissonance

tree as 2 faces

There is no denying that a major source of frustration for advancement officers is when board and executive leaders proclaim their devotion to the mission, promise to help, and don’t behave accordingly.

This cognitive dissonance is the consequence of a person performing an action (or not performing an action) that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values. It also occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.

There is little doubt that the basis of this cognitive dissonance is that the vast majority of people do not like to participate in fundraising…to use their social capital to “extract” money from others…even though they want to help you and your organization succeed.

  • How often do boards insist you produce a fundraising event that may or may not make sense to do, but when asked to sell tickets, sponsor, or even attend, many fall-short of the mark.
  • When I ask boards if they personally like to receive direct mail appeals, they almost unanimously say no, but for many organizations, direct mail provides the bulk of unrestricted funds for the organization.
  • There is the paradox that most board members would rather solicit a gift from a relative stranger, but would rather be solicited themselves by someone they know well. (see Board Survey Results post)
  • One of my favorites is when the CEO puts pressure on the advancement team to increase their performance, but is unwilling to work a small portfolio, encourage the board and other executives to assist, follow your direction in donor meetings, or invest in the advancement program when you are contributing a significant portion of the organization’s net margin.


Institutional Cognitive Dissonance

Healthcare is a shining example of institutional cognitive dissonance. In a national environment of dramatically shrinking operating margins, many hospitals and systems are engaged in multi-year cost cutting campaigns (while maintaining care quality of course). The cognitive dissonance is that advancement programs are often included in these cost-cutting campaigns despite their cost to raise a dollar is around $0.33 while the cost to raise a dollar through clinical services is on average $0.99, if not $1.05. And if CFOs realize net fundraising does and will increasingly contribute to overall net margin, it is not possible to rationally justify such financial suppression.

Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the phrase “cognitive dissonance” and explained the theory simply: “Humans strive for internal consistency. When inconsistency (dissonance) is experienced, individuals largely become psychologically distressed.”

His basic hypotheses are:

· “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance.”

· “When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance.”


What To Do?

Overcoming cognitive dissonance is very difficult. We see this vividly as our nation’s president maintains his base of supporters (roughly 35% of those surveyed) despite his overwhelming incompetence, incoherence, duplicity, admiration for adversaries and policies that hurt the very people to whom he lied to get their vote. This is a display of cognitive dissonance on mass…so don’t even try to turn around those who are frustrating you in this way.

Here are some suggestions to help you reduce your frustration and to engage your leaders most productively:

1. When recruiting board members, address their comfort level and apprehensions about fundraising. It is not meant to eliminate candidates but rather to let you know who you can and cannot count on, and how or whether to work with them.

2. Meet with each of your board members and executives individually and explore those functions they can do comfortably to support fundraising, write it down in their record, and engage them in ways that are comfortable for them.

3. Conduct a survey asking what people are willing to do to support fundraising. Options might include:

· Screen a list of top donor candidates;

· Provide background information on people they know;

· Let you use their name to secure a meeting;

· Write a note to a donor candidate to get a meeting;

· Be part of a discovery meeting;

· Steward a relationship with a donor candidate; and,

· Participate in an ask meeting.


Please share your ideas?


  1. Siegfried Herrmann, Ph,D,

    your article is excellent -but your statement” our nation’s president maintains his base of supporters (roughly 35% of those surveyed) despite his overwhelming incompetence, incoherence, duplicity, admiration for adversaries and policies that hurt the very people to whom he lied to get their vote” is unprofessional/political” There is no room for this in our profession (or used to be a profession). Very sad!

    • Larry Raff

      I call it like I see it. There is ample evidence to support each of my descriptions about the behavior of the president, and I believe the duty of every American who believes in the integrity of our government and constitution to not be silent. To be silent is to be complicit.

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