How to Power Growth with Human Truth
Team World Vision needed insights to grow its life-saving mission. Brandtrust supplied surprising solutions.
When Rusty Funk was asked to run a marathon to help children in Africa, it sounded like a great thing for someone else to do. Someone with extensive training, a lot more money, and a strong masochistic streak.
“Running is dumb! Most athletes run for punishment; they don’t run for fun,” he told Michael Chitwood, a man he’d just met at church that summer. “That just doesn’t make sense.”
It made even less sense when Rusty said he would do it.
Rusty was overcome by how Chitwood explained his mission: He worked for World Vision, an evangelical humanitarian organization dedicated to improving the health of families in developing countries.
Chitwood had recently founded a new program within the organization called Team World Vision. The idea was both staggering and simple: Participants raise money for clean water by committing to run a marathon. To honor the hardship endured by children in water-scarce areas, runners would push themselves to their limits and ask for support from friends and family along the way.
But these runners didn’t tackle the challenge alone: TWV participants trained together, helping one another toward their ambitious goal. Rusty, still ambivalent about what he’d agreed to, dreaded this aspect. Still, he asked his friend Dave to drive him to his first group run.
“As I was closing the door, I said, ‘Dave, this is the last one I’ll ever go to. I never want to do this again,’” Rusty remembered.
In October of that year, Rusty completed his first marathon. Since 2008, he’s run more than 35 races at that distance—or longer. After years of volunteering his time, he joined the TWV staff in 2011.
Today, he serves as the organization’s National Director. And he still remembers what he told Chitwood all those years ago: “Running is dumb.”
“We Wanted Proof”
Rusty was seeking data, not surprises. “I wanted proof,” he said of beginning work with Brandtrust. “I wanted to put words to the paper what I knew to be true in my gut about our young startup.”
Rusty’s convictions about the promise of Team World Vision were rooted in his personal experience. Between 2006 and 2013, he’d seen Team World Vision’s mission blossom to include about 4,000 runners each year and generate $4.5 million in donations. He felt he understood runners’ motives and that of the donors who supported them.
After all, he’d run dozens of miles in their shoes. “My life had been changed by this event, by this goal, by this mission,” he reflected. “I assume expertise in what our donor, what our consumer, what our customer wanted.”
Given the project’s success in its first seven years, Rusty felt the next stage in Team World Vision’s development was clear: To “scale without losing our soul” and generate tens of millions in donations annually.
To pursue this goal, Michael Chitwood and Rusty sought additional investment from the senior leadership at World Vision. But despite their enthusiasm, the organization’s leaders asked challenging questions. How much did each runner typically raise? Why did so few runners remain involved after completing their first race? Why had the number of runners begun to plateau in recent years?
To pursue these important lines of inquiry, the organization’s leadership suggested that Team World Vision would needed data. High-quality research would reveal the program’s true potential and highlight areas in need of improvement.
Rusty saw additional evidence would help his case: He was also troubled by the questions the board had raised. On the other hand, he felt fairly certain any additional insights would simply verify his team’s instincts, which they had honed over years of direct experience.
After all, what could outside researchers tell him about the motivations of TWV’s runners?
“It was even harder to let go of those preconceived thoughts of that I knew what our people already wanted … that we didn’t really need this data,” Rusty recalled.
But eventually, Rusty warmed up to the idea of the new research. “We need to show our senior leaders that this isn’t just a $4 million program – this could be a $50 million program,” he thought. If more guidance was required to fuel that growth, he was ready to commit.
Plus, serendipity helped Rusty find the right research partner: “Dave, the same guy who dropped me off at that first group run, was able to lead us to Brandtrust,” he said.
“Chill and Suspend Your Hypothesis”
In his first meetings with the Brandtrust team, Rusty and the team brought the energy and conviction that allowed him to manage a vibrant nonprofit – they threw out thoughts, explanations, and suggestions related to TWV’s challenges. The Brandtrust team appreciated their enthusiasm but suggested they make two important shifts in perspective.
The first was that Rusty and TWV adopt a “beginner’s mind” approach to the greatest extent possible. “‘Team World Vision and Rusty, chill and suspend your hypothesis,’” Rusty recalled his new partners telling him. “‘I want you to leave everything you think you know at the door.’” Only by putting aside their preconceived notions could the TWV team hope to learn something new.
The second suggestion seemed stranger: “You’re going to have to circumvent the rational.”
Neuroscience has consistently demonstrated the vast majority of human thought and choice originates in our primal, nonconscious brain – rather than the cerebral realm of conscious calculation. To understand what truly made TWV runners tick, TWV and Brandtrust would need research methods capable of revealing their instinctive and emotional motives.
For two decades, Brandtrust has continually innovated techniques designed to achieve these indispensable objectives. For TWV, we employed a proprietary approach called Emotional Inquiry, in which we uncovered what drives individuals’ choices in extended and increasingly intimate dialogue sessions.
In a way, Rusty was right to question the value of new research. Typical market research methods, like a cursory survey of past participants, probably wouldn’t have delivered any groundbreaking insights.
But what Emotional Inquiry uncovered would permanently alter TWV’s path. In the 3 years after partnering with Brandtrust, TWV went on to raise over $30 million, bringing clean water to over 600,000 people.
“We Didn’t Really Know What We Thought We Knew”
Brandtrust’s process produced dozens of insights, but the most important revelations addressed the three central concerns World Vision’s board had hoped this research would resolve:
- How could the fundraising process be improved to help each runner secure more support?
- How might TWV improve retention, so that more runners attempted multiple races?
- How could TWV revive steady growth in participation?
In each case, our Emotional Inquiry approach allowed TWV to understand and activate new insights. “It kind of showed us that we didn’t really know what we thought we knew,” Rusty reflected later.
Insight No. 1: Fundraising Can Feel Lonely
TWV’s staff were no strangers to the power of collective motivation: Group training was an integral piece of their program, uniting individuals in pursuit of a common goal they wouldn’t even attempt otherwise.
But our interview with runners suggested this camaraderie was absent from another integral piece of the runners’ experience: fundraising. When they went to friends and family to ask for donations, they often faced discomfort and rejection alone.
“They felt encouraged and supported during training for a marathon, but they felt completely abandoned and alone when it came to the other half of our business, which is fundraising,” Rusty recalled. “And that rocked my world because we had been putting all of our emphasis onto the supporting of one aspect, which is the training.”
At first, this truth was difficult to swallow. “That was weird to accept that because we had kind of built our name and our reputation and our ideology around making people feel supported,” Rusty remembered, “and they were telling us they weren’t, and that was kind of weird to hear, but we had to accept it.”
Accept it they did – then acted.
In light of these findings, TWV radically shifted its fundraising support, creating a framework for participants to share their triumphs. The team created “Impact Nights,” in which runners could gather to learn and practice fundraising techniques together. Once isolated, participants were more united in their common cause.
Additionally, our research indicated the organization needed to create a range of fundraising opportunities so that runners with various personalities and preferences could choose their own path to making an impact.
Some would enjoy throwing fundraising events, whereas others would reach supporters via email. All would use their own skills to promote the TWV mission. “That just blew our mind,” Rusty said. “It seems so simple now afterward, but hindsight is 20/20.”
The results of these changes and TWV’s continued work are self-evident. When TWV hired Brandtrust, it received $4.5 million in revenue, and the average runner raised $700. By 2017, the average runner brought in $1,100, and revenue reached $16 million. In 2018, TWV’s goal is to raise $25 million of impact for their cause.
Insight No. 2: Every Run Requires a First Step
Problem: Participation rates were beginning to flatten.
Insight: A smaller commitment can pave the way for larger goals.
Solution: Expand opportunities to become involved at any level of fitness and commitment.
Result: Growth from 4,000 runners to 30,000 in four years
For many first-time runners, the titanic accomplishment of running a marathon was enticing. But Rusty and TWV also understood many runners would prefer to start on a smaller scale. Could a shorter race be the answer to their plateauing participation?
Unfortunately, they’d tried offering a 6K before, and fundraising had been relatively modest. Plus, hadn’t Brandtrust also concluded return runners like Anthony needed a daunting challenge to remain engaged? Why wouldn’t first-time runners respond to the same incentives?
But Rusty recalls Brandtrust strongly encouraged TWV to lower the barriers to involvement by offering smaller races for first-time participants. “We said, ‘That won’t work. That won’t work.’” Rusty remembered. “And they said, ‘We need you to open that funnel.’”
Emotional Inquiry interviews had shown the desire to run for a worthy cause was tempered by fear of failure. These findings suggested if more runners could find a way to wet their feet, they’d be more likely to take the plunge later.
Rusty and his team began to establish shorter races in multiple cities, experimenting with this means of increasing involvement. They weren’t hopeful about raising much money but thought some of these 6K runners would eventually accept the marathon mantle.
What happened? The shorter-distance runners raised $6.5 million, and 10% went on to run a marathon. Most importantly, participation started to spike again. TWV events expanded to include walking and biking possibilities as well.
“In 2013, the year before we got to look at Brandtrust, we had about 4,000 people,” Rusty said. “This year in 2017, we had 30,000 people walk, run, or ride for our cause.”
Insight No. 3: Retention Means Raising the Bar
Problem: Retention numbers were low.
Insight: People need new challenges.
Solution: Provide even veteran runners with new opportunities to embrace the cause.
Result: In many cities, 30 to 40 percent of runners now sign up for another race.
For all the elation runners felt upon completing their first marathon, only a small percentage returned for a second race. This phenomenon confused the TWV staff, who wondered if the prospect of multiple marathons was just too daunting.
“At the time when we did our research with Brandtrust, 80% of our runners weren’t returning,” Rusty remembered. “They were doing this hard thing running a marathon, but they weren’t coming back, and we wanted to know how do we get them to come back?”
Rusty and the TWV crew wondered if what they’d learned about first-time runners also applied to those who’d already completed one race. Maybe a second marathon was simply too daunting a challenge.
“Our natural answer to that question was to give them lesser options,” Rusty said. “So yes, that hurt to run a marathon, but maybe come back in half marathon or 10K. That was our natural bent.”
Our Emotional Inquiry results, however, indicated that returning runners needed exactly the opposite: an even greater challenge.
The TWV experience was special because it included an impressive objective. Once they were past the finish line, participants needed another ambitious goal. Serious runners become devotees of incremental progress: They improve their times and distances slowly but surely. They need to move forward, or they stop.
For those contemplating their first TWV experience, a 6K race might serve as an excellent incremental goal. But for runners with a marathon on their resumes already, an even more arduous aim was needed. In this way, the same human truth applied to both beginners and veterans: When faced with new challenges, they would rise to the occasion.
“The way to keep them over the many, many years is to ask them to do more, and more, and more,” Rusty realized.
The TWV staff had a chance to test this theory soon after. One of their longtime runners, Anthony, informed them he was stepping away from the organization after multiple marathons on their behalf.
“That next year we said, ‘Okay, Anthony, you’re done. Will you go run a 56-mile Ultra Marathon in the hills of South Africa called Comrades?’” Rusty recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, you have a funny way of thanking me.’”
Three years and multiple attempts later, Anthony completed the grueling Comrades Ultra Marathon. He raised more than $500,000 for TWV in the process.
Anthony was not the only runner to respond to the new challenges TWV presented to marathon veterans. In just a few years, the portion of returning runners showed a 50 to 100 percent increase some markets.
“To Think Differently”
Reflecting on the success of his work with Brandtrust, Rusty now feels he received much more than the confirmation of his own ideas he had sought originally.
In addition to significant improvement in revenue, participation, and retention, Rusty got the investment he initially sought from the World Vision board. “It did give us the data. We got the investment,” he noted. But the insights his team developed by working with Brandtrust have had the more lasting impact.
“I feel comfortable saying 50% of what we do now was sparked by that – to think differently,” he said recently. “My advice is to research and listen, rather than assuming you know.”
Rusty might have good reason to rest on his laurels, but as with any good runner, he knows the only way is forward. “And so, we’re in year thirteen, and we’re looking to grow by 83% again in year thirteen, and that’s incredible,” he said.
Rusty is armed with dozens of such statistics speaking to TWV’s growth and ambitious goals. But the figure that may matter most to him tells a much larger story.
“Eight years ago, it was estimated that 1 billion people in the world didn’t have access to clear water,” Rusty said. “And since then, in the last eight years, we’ve been able to reduce that down to about 620 million. World Vision is the leading non-government provider of clean water in that fight, and many organizations are joining us in that fight, but we are the leaders in it.”
Providing clean drinking water across the globe will be a marathon, not a sprint. But we can go farther than we ever thought possible when we run the race together.
During the Emotional Inquiry research, one TWV runner expressed how the organization’s mission had called her to do what once seemed impossible. “I was envisioning a village of children running and shouting and excited about fresh water,” she said. “I’m imagining I’m holding fresh water. They can’t just wait for me to walk it over. They need me to run it to them.”
For decades, Brandtrust has drawn on the methods and principles of social science to revolutionize our client’s approach to their business challenges. Our research yields thoughtful and actionable conclusions to shape organizational strategy and identify opportunities for progress.
We help many of the world’s most recognizable and respected companies discover the human truths at the core of their customers’ actions, so they can better serve their deeper needs. To discover how Brandtrust’s approach can transform your business, explore our work with many of the world’s leading brands.