On a recent episode of How To!, Maria Konnikova, psychologist and author of The Confidence Game, shares some tricks of the con artist’s trade with Charles Duhigg and Shannon, a listener who’s trying to fundraise for her nonprofit in Aspen, Colorado. One tactic they focus on is the “foot in the door,” a hallmark of Nigerian prince scams. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles: Do you think the lessons of the con man can help Shannon think about how to fundraise?
Maria: Absolutely. Absolutely. Especially because there’s one con that actually hinges on human desire to do good. So think about how many times you have been approached by someone in the subway or at Penn Station saying, “Excuse me, I don’t have fare for the bus. I don’t have fare for the metro. Can you give me money? Can you give me $2? Can you give $5? Can you pay $10?” What if they really do need to catch the bus to their family in New Jersey?
Those types of stories work because people want to do good. There’s one technique in particular that’s incredibly effective called the foot-in-the-door technique. The notion behind it is that people are much more likely to do something for you, and actually do something potentially big, if they’ve done a small favor first. If they’ve done something small for you in the past, that means a few things: That means your cause was worthwhile because they already agreed to do something for it, they’re good people, and they made the right decision back then.
Charles: So this is our first rule: Start with a small request just to get your foot in the door. It can be something totally insignificant. In fact, it’s better if it’s something insignificant. Something that it’s easy for the person, for your mark, to say yes to. And then you can grow the requests from there.
Maria: This has been around forever. Benjamin Franklin used it, and he used it to get people who were his political enemies to become his friends. So when it comes to nonprofits and when it comes to fundraising, I think it could actually be incredibly helpful to start with very small asks that aren’t necessarily even for money. Like, do you support nonviolence? Would you sign this? Would you give 10 minutes of your time at your child’s school to supervise this workshop? Ask for something small that’s very easy to give. And then that creates an affinity, which in turn opens up the door—you have your foot in the door, and now you can ask for bigger things. And people will say yes. The research on this is crazy. People will say yes to the most insane things, the most insane demands on their time that you wouldn’t think that they would accept.
Charles: Simply because they’ve already given you something small.
Charles: So what you’re saying is that, Shannon, if you’re going after someone who you know is a multimillionaire, you don’t ask them for any money. Instead you ask them to do the smallest, easiest thing.
Maria: Exactly. And it makes them feel like a good person. It makes them feel like they’re making a positive impact, and it makes them feel like, “Oh, well this person didn’t hit me up for money yet again.”
Charles: Shannon, what do you think about that? Have you tried anything like that?
Shannon: Yeah, I absolutely agree, Maria. And I think that you don’t want people to feel like you’re always asking them for money. You want them to feel like they are part of your mission. And so one way to do that is to sit down with someone and don’t ask them for money—ask them for their advice. And that may develop a relationship that eventually will turn into an ask, that’s one way. The other is people are always thinking about How do I expand my donor list? And it’s often more productive to look at your existing donor list and say, Who gave me $25, and how can I connect them more to the mission so that next year they want to give us $50? So I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, and we do that a lot.
Charles: It sounds like you’re doing everything right with a foot in the door, but I’m wondering if there’s more opportunity to even take this to the next level? Maria, how do con men use that, that foot in the door? What’s an example of something that someone told you about where they got a small thing that led to something big?
Maria: My favorite story of this is actually one that I tracked down in a library because it happened in the 1900s. It’s one of the original Nigerian prince scams. An ad appeared in newspapers all over the country. It said that there was a Nigerian prince and this was a letter from him, and he said, “I’m all alone, basically, here in my palace with my jewels, and all I want is friends.”
And people sent him lots of letters, and then he started a correspondence. He asked for a pair of old pants and $4, and said, “In exchange I’ll send you jewels because I have no use for them. They’re just baubles. But I have heard that in America these things are valuable.” So people sent him pants and then they sent him money and they didn’t get any jewels, and all of a sudden the U.S. Postal Service smelled something and decided to investigate, and they found out that this was a little kid, 14-year-old named Bil Morrison in the U.S., not a Nigerian prince. And he was just very much ahead of his time.
The reason why the foot in the door actually can be so effective for con artists—and this is a step that a lot of other types of people who have much better intentions often skip—is that con artists understand that not every single person is going to fall for the same con. So they know how to tailor their story specifically to you. How do they know that? They are incredible listeners.