Coronavirus fundraising – there’s a better way

Judging from what’s showing up in mailboxes and email inboxes, it looks like a lot of nonprofits are struggling with the messaging around the coronavirus crisis. But honestly, they’re making it much harder than it has to be.

Take this example from a prominent aid and relief charity. The first paragraph begins with the new president and CEO introducing himself and then acknowledging that he’s stepping into his new role at a challenging time. “We’re all facing the coronavirus pandemic,” he writes. Uh…no kidding.

So, apparently, this is a new-CEO letter, plus a coronavirus fundraising appeal. Generally, it’s not a great idea to try and do two things with one letter. It’s best when the letter has one purpose and one point.

The next paragraph talks about how COVID-19 threatens everyone, especially the elderly and people with health conditions. There’s no need to waste time saying this. People have gotten this information thousands of times by now.

In the third paragraph, the letter writer explains that he’s often asked if it’s difficult to be a CEO at this challenging time, and then assures us that the organization adapts to challenging times because of their strong teams. This comes off as way too self-serving, but beside that, it’s not good fundraising, because it’s about the organization not the donor.

The next paragraph congratulates the front line health workers for their commitment and the organization’s supporters for their commitment. This is an okay sentiment, of course, but it shouldn’t be here, four paragraphs in, before we’ve even come to an ask.

Paragraph five explains that all hands are needed on deck in this crisis, and asks, “Can you help us?”  Not “Can you help shut down the coronavirus?” But “Can you help US?” This is organization centric, not donor centric.

It’s not until the sixth paragraph that we get to the real point of the letter: a donation to provide personal protective equipment for health workers. Before we get to that, though, the letter explains that the organization has already shipped tons of PPE for health workers.

Hang on a minute – so the organization has already shipped tons of PPE and now they’re asking for a donation to ship PPE? That’s a strange way to present an ask. Why would you tell a donor, right before the ask, that you’ve already done the very same thing you’re asking the donor to do? Sort of takes the edge off of the urgency, doesn’t it?

There’s a far better way to structure this appeal, and it starts with the opening. Begin with the real and urgent need for PPE. This is something, given the wall-to-wall news coverage, that every donor will immediately get. Then show the donor how her gift fulfills that need, ideally with a specific and compelling offer. Something like: “Your gift of $XX sends XX pairs of gloves. Your gift of $XX sends XX masks.” And so on.

It’s one of the basic best practices of disaster fundraising. In many disasters, the news coverage provides the background, which means that donors mainly need to know how they can help and what their help will do. If it takes five or six paragraphs of blab to get to this point, most donors will be long gone.

There’s a basic framework for structuring disaster-fundraising appeals, and it doesn’t include talk about the commitment of your staff, your organization’s history, your organization’s flexibility, generalities about how much of a threat coronavirus is, and similar things. They’re just not relevant. They take the donor’s eye off the ball.

What disaster fundraising does require is a compelling expression of the need, a clear case for the urgency of the donor’s gift, and a strong offer that details what the donor’s gift will do. All focused around one core idea. Because when the appeal has one purpose and one point, there’s a far greater chance that it’s going to break through, connect with donors, and raise more money.

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