How to Make America Sweet Again

By Maxine Epstein

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another; than he whom you yourself have obliged,” Benjamin Franklin wrote. Call it The Franklin Effect, a playbook on how to transform haters and doubters into friends.

I’ve seen it in action for years. I am a professional fundraiser – I help nonprofits cultivate donors and give those donors the opportunity to participate in sacred work, to make this world a better place. Good fundraisers are trained in the art of the “ask” – and the “ask” is crucial because once someone has given something – anything! – he or she is primed to give again.

Thanks to the Franklin effect, I have brought in a number of seven-figure gifts, enhanced major gift initiatives, increased annual campaigns by nearly 63 percent, doubled legacy and endowment gifts and, more importantly, increased participation across the political divide, generations and gender in the community.

Let me Womansplain for you: Successful fundraisers understand that engaging and cultivating relationships takes an investment of time and energy. You are in it for the long haul. It is indeed a committed relationship. Success is never just the bottom line, or the immediate return on investment as measured by dollars. For example, organizations that focus on putting their limited resources in holding annual events or galas year after year as the only way to increase philanthropic dollars are not building long lasting relationships. One night stands are never gratifying or cost effective either in dollars, or in enhancing relationships. The next day you may be left with some good feelings, but they are fleeting.

The lessons I’ve learned as a community organizer and fundraiser in the Jewish communities here in America and Israel can work for us all. Cultivation truly will translate into a kinder and less hateful America. Try it.

Begin in a small way by going next store or crossing the street to your neighbor and ask to borrow a cup of sugar or an egg. Allow your neighbor to do you a favor. Psychology and science tells us that it is nearly impossible to “hate” a person you do a favor for.  It’s the Franklin Effect!

Our new neighbors decided to build a swimming pool. They neglected to tell us. The constant pounding of construction put cracks in our walls and in our family. Our daughters could no longer do homework in their rooms. My partner could no longer work from home. Construction began at 6am and ended at sundown seven days a week. There were filth, noise, trucks and workers everywhere, all the time. When our shared fence came down, the workers ripped out my rose bushes. I HATED these horrid people and I had never even met them. Irate and extremely annoyed, I grabbed an empty cup and marched next door.

“Hi. I am your neighbor. All of my walls are cracked; my daughters cannot do homework in their rooms. Your pool project has destroyed my house, fence, roses, and family. My life is intolerable.”

And then holding out my cup I asked, “May I please borrow some sugar?”

“Sorry, we don’t do sugar,” said my neighbor, Juliet. I hated her even more.

“Do you have anything I can borrow?” I sheepishly asked.

Juliet invited me in. Turns out my neighbors, Juliet and her husband, Kelly, are gurus in the CrossFit world. We talked some more. My teen began babysitting for her kids and was hired to do an internship at their gym. Yes, the construction continued for another three months, but the workers began at a normal hour and ended by 5 p.m. And Juliet and I became fast friends.

Practice on your neighbor. After you do, go even further and ask someone scary for a favor. In a time of crisis that Republican, or queer, white or black person, Muslim, Jew, etc. will be more likely to assist you and have a favorable impression of you. To avoid living in a state of toxic fear, we must create and find webs of connection. Reach out across the aisle and meet the person you most fear. And then? Ask for a favor.

Healing the divisions in this country must come from the rank and file, from the bottom up. It cannot and will not come from political or organizational leadership. We must all become activists – and not necessarily beginning with a march or letter writing campaign. Practice the art of asking, because it cultivates community. The results will transform our country – one cup of sugar at a time.

Maxine Epstein has been working with nonprofits within the Jewish community for the past 30 years as a major gift fundraiser and community organizer.