When disaster fundraising works and when it doesn’t

If you haven’t already, you’ll probably soon receive a barrage of emails appealing to you for donations to help the victims of the horrible earthquake in Turkey and Syria. This is of course a worthy cause. The need is overwhelming. And the rest of the world should do everything possible to help.

Which makes this email subject line so puzzling. Here it is:

“How we’re saving lives in Turkey right now.”


Then in the email itself, there’s this headline:

“How we’re saving lives in Turkey right now.”

Double huh.

Imagine you’re a potential donor. What’s your reaction to that line? Mine is that it looks like they’re got everything covered. Time to move onto the next email in the inbox.

With that subject line and headline, I’m left completely out of this as a potential donor. And that’s too bad.

Because the quake zone is total devastation. Tens of thousands killed. Survivors left without shelter, food, sanitation. The risk of cholera and other diseases. It’s destruction on a mass scale.

However much this nonprofit has done, it’s a drop in the bucket. There’s sooooo much more to do. They need my donation. And I want to give it. But they’re not making it easy. They’re not engaging me. In fact, they’re suggesting that I’m not needed.

The text of the email begins by referencing the death and destruction. But in the second paragraph, it reiterates the work that the charity is doing. Again, giving the impression that they’ve got this covered and don’t need my gift.

This is followed by a bulleted list. But it’s not a list of what needs to be done. It’s a list of what they’re already doing. Further on in the email, it says that their teams do whatever it takes.

Granted, there is a donate button with the words “Rush your gift.” But still, the messaging has an inside-our-four-walls, organizational framing, not a donor-centric one. There’s a lot of “we,” “us,” and “look at what we’re doing,” instead of “you” and “here’s how you can help.”

Of course this email will probably raise a lot of money. That’s the thing with disaster fundraising. It often does well even if it’s done badly, because donors are generous people who do want to help. Still, donors want to be involved. They want to feel like their support is needed. So instead of making it about what the nonprofit is already doing, it should be more about how much you, the donor, is urgently needed now to save lives. Messaging along those lines can raise even more revenue. Which would save even more lives.

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