41. The Power of a Surprise Ask

Our guest this episode, in an encore appearance, is our friend and HBS colleague Christine Exley. Back in Episode 10 we discussed her on-going research on gender inequality and how to address it. This time we learned about her work on charitable giving—why we sometimes say yes and other times no.

Most of us are deluged by appeals—phone calls, email blasts, and the old-fashioned knocks on the door. With so many organizations vying for our attention, it’s become a competitive environment. As the old saying goes, “You don’t get, if you don’t ask.” But the more asks we hear, the less attention we can give them. Envelopes pile up on our desks. Emails pack our inboxes. Many of them are from worthy causes, but eventually, with a sigh perhaps, we pitch them all.

In a study with colleagues, Christine found that not asking—that is, not asking at the outset—is more likely to prompt a contribution.

The team set up a contest in which subjects would vote for a charity where the winner would get a large cash prize. Half the subjects were told in advance that they would then be asked to donate to their chosen organization. The other half weren’t given that heads-up. For them the request to personally contribute came as a surprise. As you might guess, that second group was significantly more generous. But why?

The research team concluded that people in the first group, who were forewarned, had time to come up with an excuse for declining the request. By contrast, the people for whom the request came out of the blue, weren’t prepared to dodge it.

The “surprise ask” technique may apply in other situations, as well. When you approach a friend or colleague for a personal favor, you might be better off first explaining your situation and then, after you’ve gotten their attention and warmed things up, making your ask. This can apply in negotiation, as well.

P.S. Beyond being a much-admired teacher and scholar, Christine has also been a social entrepreneur on the side. She co-founded Waggero, an organization for finding homes for abandoned dogs. The challenge was how to compete with (and elbow out) unethical “puppy mills” that badly mistreat the animals they breed. As you’ll hear, Christine came up with a clever solution.