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May 18, 2022
Understanding How You Influence Others Is Critical for Nonprofits
Book You Have More Influence than You Think

All nonprofits need to persuade people to support their cause, but it’s not unusual for those charged with doing the persuading to feel they’re not up to the task, to which You Have More Influence than You Think in essence says, “Nonsense.”

What makes the message so compelling is that author Vanessa Bohns, a social psychologist and professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, isn’t trying to help you gain influence, but rather help you understand and tap into the influence you already have.

“You are a person, not an ad or a tweet, and people are wired to notice other people,” she writes. “More than that, they are wired to wonder what other people are thinking, and to adjust their own thoughts and behaviors accordingly. What this means is that you are quietly and subtly influencing the people around you all the time – without even trying, and often without realizing it.”

Nonprofit professionals of all stripes continuously ask others to do things – volunteer, serve on the board, ask for donations. Bohns, citing studies, writes that people often overestimate how difficult a task will be before trying it, and are surprised to learn how relatively easy it was. When it comes to fundraising, many people think that the bigger the request, the less likely people will agree to it. Again, evidence shows no direct relation between request size and donation. Bohns asserts that fundraisers, who have credibility just by representing their nonprofit, have more influence than they often realize.

Feeling that one is not sufficiently influential is related to a lack of self confidence. While much has been written about the dangers of overconfidence—“It will be a slam dunk” – it rarely is; “If we build it, they will come” – not necessarily—Bohns says underconfidence has been underrated. “Underconfidence makes people try harder, double-check their work, and listen to advice.” (Though too much underconfidence can lead to inaction.)

On the flip side, people in a position of power may not be aware of the influence they have over others. That’s because, according to Bohns, “when we have power, we make less of an effort to take other people’s perspectives.” It also can lead people in positions of power to think that since they are free to do what they want, others are as well, which can pave the way to blaming others for things over which they may have no control.

Whether one is in a position of power, or not aware of his or her ability to influence, Bohns details three steps people can take to better understand their influence over others:

  1. Get outside your own head: “When we peer out at the world through our own eyes, we don’t see ourselves or the role we play in creating the situations we are in.

  2. Feel the impact of your actions by getting inside other people’s heads: “We must get better at predicting and understanding how others might feel as a result of the things we do and say.”

  3. Experience your influence, although “accurately learning about your own influence through direct experience turns out not to be as simple as it may initially seem”

Perhaps this book’s greatest insight is in highlighting how many of us misperceive who has influence. Given that nonprofits will continue to operate in what is likely to be an increasingly complex environment, gaining clarity on who influences whom seems time well spent.

You Have More Influence than You Think is published by Norton.

Reviewed by Peter Lowy
March 2022

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