Why donors give

Thanks go to fundraising expert Tom Ahern for this. In his excellent e-newsletter, he included the moving and inspiring words of Damian O’Broin on why he’s a fundraiser. The occasion was the opening of the 2017 Ask Direct Fundraising Summer School in Dublin. Yes, Damian’s address is about him and his chosen profession, but it’s also much more than that.

With each of the reasons that Damian lays out for being a fundraiser, he also reveals why people are donors. And he does it in language that’s direct and powerful. Because donors give for reasons that are direct and powerful for them.

Staring off, Damian talks a bit about his early life, and then gets down to the specifics about why he’s in fundraising, including such illuminating points as:

  • I’m a fundraiser because my mother died from lung cancer, and my Dad died from kidney failure.
  • I’m a fundraiser because we’re sleepwalking into catastrophic climate change.
  • I’m a fundraiser because we’re closer than ever to beating cancer.
  • I’m a fundraiser because two million people have fled for their lives in South Sudan.

There are many more. For each of them, simply substitute “donor” for “fundraiser,” and you have the key to engaging donors and raising money.

I’m a donor because my mother died of cancer … I’m a donor because we’re sleepwalking into catastrophic climate change … I’m a donor because two million people have fled South Sudan.

You can read the text of Damian’s talk here.

You’ll feel good about being a fundraiser, and when you include the word “donor,” you’ll better understand the direct and powerful reasons behind the decision to give.

We have to remember that what’s going on in donors’ heads when they receive our fundraising appeals is their own personal reason for giving. That’s what we have to tap into.

The fact is, we make fundraising complicated with all the talk about data, strategies, metrics, and so on. Those are important, but we can’t let them distract us.

Because it’s really just about the person on the receiving end of our fundraising message. It’s really just about her and about her ‘why.’





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Email fundraising idea to test

There are lots of guidelines for fundraising emails about opt in, unsubscribe, and so on, that you’re probably well aware of.

But in that required language is an opportunity to strengthen our fundraising messages. Hear me out.

Most fundraising emails have an “unsubscribe” link that’s visible near the top. That’s required. Then, when you scroll all the way down to the footer of the email, where no one ever looks, you’ll see another “unsubscribe” link, the “forward to a friend” link perhaps, and probably social media icons.

If look even further down in the footer, you’ll probably see another, boilerplate-sounding statement that seems like it’s required language. It will be something like: “You are receiving this email because you subscribed at www.ABCNonprofit.org” (or however people opt-in to your email list).

Including this line isn’t mandatory, but it is a best practice, so it’s probably on your emails.

Now, here’s the idea to test. Take this statement — “You are receiving this email because you subscribed at http://www.ABCNonprofit.org.” — and move it from the bottom of your email where nobody sees it to the very top of the email, so that it’s the first thing that donors will see when they open your email.

Why? Because it will immediately set the tone by reminding donors that they asked to receive emails from you. (This is assuming of course that you’re not spamming donors but are generating your opt-in list from signups, and so your recipients actually did ask to join your email list.)

Instead of donors thinking, “This is another email from ABC Nonprofit asking for money,” seeing that line of text just might reframe the whole email for them, so that they’re thinking, “This is one of those emails I opted-in to receive.”

It’s also a plus that the line seems like mandatory /  regulatory language as opposed to marketing / fundraising language.

Not a bad way to start off your fundraising message. So why not test it? Just take that line that’s now at the bottom of your email and move it all the way to the top. And if you do try it, share what happens.

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When thanking your donor is a weak fundraising approach

It seems like the most natural thing in the world to open a letter or email to a donor with something like: “Thank you so much for all of your generous support.”

It’s putting attention on the donor. It’s conversational. It’s friendly. And it’s safe — after all, who would object to being thanked?

It may seem like a good idea, but as an opening gambit to a donor when you’re going to lead up to an ask, it can sometimes be pretty weak.

Because, for one thing, your donor should ideally have been acknowledged and thanked for previous gifts in a separate communication, and that’s where you would go overboard with appreciation and praise.

But even more than that, opening a letter with a statement of thanks is weak when it’s used in the absence of a strong offer. Thanking your donor in the opening isn’t a substitute for leading with an offer. Nor is it a substitute for presenting the donor with an opportunity to make a difference.

It’s even worse when the communication goes like this: “Thank you for all of your generous support. As you know, ABC Charity operates a variety of innovative programs and services in countries around the world, and our experts in logistics and international relief are among the best …”

In cases like these, the “thank you” line is there simply to create the appearance of donor-centricity, while the rest of the message is all about the organization.

There’s no question that it’s good to thank donors for their gifts. That’s why thank-you letters are crucial.

And there are even times when thanking can work as an opening. For example: “Your last gift of $25 made a real difference in the fight against cancer. Thank you! And now, I have an even more exciting opportunity to help end cancer as we know it.”

Here the thank you is keyed to a reminder of the last gift amount as well as to donor impact and donor opportunity.

The opening in a letter or an email is how you’re positioning and framing the entire message to your donor. It has to be right, or the communication won’t get read.

That’s why one of the most reliable letter leads (among many others, of course) is, “I’m writing to you because …” Whatever you fill in to finish that sentence will most likely be a valid proposition to your donor and an opportunity to have an impact.


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Our idea of a “fundraising story” is way too small

Tell great stories. It’s the fundraising mantra. We’re led to believe that if our fundraising is going to have any hope of raising money that we have to be able to create protagonists, work out a plotline, and build the action in our stories to a crescendo like we’re Cecil B. DeMille or something.

Yes, good stories are important in fundraising. Crucial, in fact. But there’s this idea that all you have to do is drop a story into a mail or email appeal, and suddenly donors will crawl over broken glass to give.

The problem is that a story, even if it’s a good one, probably won’t be able to save an appeal that doesn’t have a compelling offer, fails to present valid reasons to give, and isn’t donor centric.

But that’s only the half of it.

We need to see the idea of storytelling in a much larger context. In reality, every word, every image, every ‘thing’ in your appeal — from the envelope or the subject line to the paper or the digital graphics to the signature — everything is telling a story.

It’s not enough to simply drop a story into an appeal. Your appeal – all of it in its entirety – IS the story.

Not only that, everything that a nonprofit does — from the website to the internet presence to the media coverage (or lack of it) is part of the story. The entire donor experience that a nonprofit is providing is the story.

This is simply another way of saying, as Seth Godin does, that the brand is the story. “Every brand has a story,” he writes. “The story includes expectations and history and promises and social cues and emotions. We support a charity or a soccer team or a perfume because it gives us a chance to love something about ourselves.”

Sure, there are all kinds of dramatic devices we can use in storytelling for fundraising. But whether we’re talking about the story of someone saved from addiction in an appeal or “story” in the larger context, what makes a story good is when it’s about the donor.

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Why informing donors doesn’t work in fundraising

It’s all too easy to think that if donors had enough information about a nonprofit’s work that they would donate in droves.

But, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Truth is, as fundraisers we run into a roadblock called confirmation bias. This is people’s tendency to accept information that already supports their beliefs and reject everything else. Cognitive scientists have been studying this for a while. They find that more information doesn’t change people’s minds. In fact, it causes them to be more entrenched in their views. See more, including study results, in my guest post at Future Fundraising Now.

If we’re trying to persuade people to donate to a cause, information isn’t the way to do it. We have to move their hearts, not fill up their heads.

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Why this typical human trait is the key to enticing your donors to give

Curiosity is a characteristic most people share, of course. But there’s something very curious about it.

Before the 17th century throughout Europe, according to science writer Philip Ball, curiosity was frowned upon. It was thought of as meddling in things you weren’t supposed to know about, presumably for your own good.

Once the 17th century dawned, all that changed. With the Renaissance, it became acceptable to ask questions, and curiosity went from vice to virtue. That’s lucky for us, because as fundraisers we want to use curiosity in all kinds of ways to get donors engaged in our appeals.

The question is how. Here are three things to consider.

Limit the information you provide. Curiosity is the gap between what we know and what we want to know. Information fills in that gap. So, to arouse curiosity, we want to provide just the right amount of information. If you give too little, you’ll fail to spark curiosity. But if you give too much, you’ll douse it.

Say you need a teaser for your direct mail appeal. Something like “special opportunity” withholds information, true. But it doesn’t give enough to whet the appetite for more. So, that one’s low on the curiosity scale. On the other hand, something like “How $1 saved 20 people in Sudan from certain death” gives just enough information to get people wanting more. That one would be higher on the curiosity scale. To arouse curiosity, pick and choose what you don’t say.

Promise a big reward or a big disaster. The idea here is to present something attractive to your donors that will draw them in. Or, to present the unthinkable, so they’ll take action to avert it.

For example, an envelope teaser might say something like this to promise a big reward: “YOU: the humanitarian admired for saving lives in the Sudan famine.” Donors might think, “Me, a humanitarian? How could that be?” and want to see more about it.

Or if we wanted to promise a big disaster, the teaser might be something like, “Famine exploding in Sudan. They’ll all die without your help.” The idea with presenting a big disaster is that people will often do more to avoid something bad from happening than to cause something good to happen.

Shock or provoke a little. Use this cautiously, but the idea is that, to arouse curiosity, you don’t always want to say something that satisfies your donor. You want to nudge them, maybe even challenge them a little, to get them to want to find out more.

In this case, your envelope teaser might be something like, “This girl starves to death in the Sudan famine while the despots feast!” Along with some healthy outrage, your donor will likely want to find out why and how this is happening.

These are just some ways to evoke curiosity. There are many more. Using curiosity is a reliable method of attracting donors, but it’s a rapier not a broadsword. It has to be used skillfully, and it has to align with your offer and your audience if it’s going to work the way you want it to.

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Is your fundraising too dramatic? Good!

Effective fundraising copywriting has some qualities that seem to get under the skin of the people who review it. Jeff Brooks has written about this on FutureFundraisingNow.

It’s simple, repetitive, emotional, dramatic, and makes people uncomfortable. These are all good things, not bad things. Especially that second-to-last one — dramatic.

To break through the clutter, copy has to have drama. But then it’s called “over the top” and “too dramatic.”

It’s a misguided criticism by reviewers, and to prove it to yourself, just watch TV.

In one Cadillac TV ad, seemingly normal people on a city sidewalk suddenly acquire expressions of beatific rapture as they turn (in cinematic slo-mo) to swoon at the sight of the car passing by (also in cinematic slo-mo). Sun glints off the windshield. The pedestrians then gaze in admiration at the driver, who belies the slightest, most barely perceptible yet knowing look of pride and status.

These people have been transported into realms of enchantment because they have never before in their lives beheld a car as beautiful as this one.

Is that ad over-the-top dramatic? You bet it is. Did Cadillac’s ad agency use every dramatic effect in the toolbox? Of course. Do they know how to persuade people to buy Cadillacs? Yes they do.

Cadillac is merely selling cars, and yet they pull out all the stops without hesitation.

We’re saving lives, transforming lives, changing the world. If anyone has a legitimate right to use every dramatic effect possible it’s fundraisers. Copywriting that’s too dramatic? If it’s within ethical boundaries and it stirs donors and moves them to do good, then there’s no such thing.



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