What’s wrong with using emotion in fundraising?

When we use strong emotions in our donor appeals, is it poverty porn or just good fundraising? See my guest post on the topic here.

One of the conclusions of a recent article in SOFI is that negative emotions can highlight a problem, but positive emotions create more behavioral change.

So does this mean we should use only positive emotions in appeals? That wouldn’t work, for obvious reasons. Human beings are not one dimensional in any area of life. Why should our charitable giving be any different?

There are wide range of emotional motivators to choose from. There’s no need to restrict ourselves to just one or two. Instead, it’s better to use as many as possible. Here’s why.

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Why we get mediocre fundraising

The appeal opened with a description of a sweet little baby, and proceeded to deliver this bombshell:

“Then he’s dead. Dead in 24 hours. Lying open mouthed to the night air, with his mom and dad weeping.”

Strong language for an appeal? Yes. Concrete and graphic? Yes. Taking aim at donors’ emotions? Yes. Gratuitous guilt-tripping? Not at all. Not even close.

In this case, the appeal was about the tragedy of babies dying in poor countries. So it made perfect sense to dramatize that problem as vividly as possible.

Then, the initial comments came in.

“Too over the top,” they said. “Too shocking.” So it was watered down. But why?

For a lot of reasons, but mostly fear. People are reluctant to rock the boat or disagree. And in truth, many clients are reluctant to risk donor complaints.

It’s understandable, of course. But then again, anything that’s even slightly outside the boundaries of the accepted gets nixed, and what’s left is the lukewarm, the middle of the road, the mediocre.

If writing copy for fundraising is about anything at all it’s passion for the cause. We can’t have that and, at the same time, let fear hold us back from connecting with donors at a visceral level. Which is what we absolutely, without question, must do.

So, we have to push forward. Test the boundaries. Take a risk. Go out on a limb. Try something bold, even if it doesn’t work.

It’s the only thing to do, because there’s only one other alternative, and that way lies mediocrity.

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Giving is way up for 2016, but what’s ahead for 2017?

2016 has been a banner year for nonprofits, according to a report from NPR.

Fundraising is up about $35 million over last year – a big jump. Giving Tuesday alone was up an amazing 44 percent over last year, totaling $168 million in donations.

Most likely, the rise in giving is due to the strong economy.

But the other part of the story has to do with the impact of a Trump administration and the Republican Congress.

If there are big tax cuts for the rich, then the charitable tax deduction won’t be worth as much. So some accountants are advising clients to give more this year because of possible tax changes.

So far so good.

But it’s likely there will be federal spending cuts in the coming year that will directly impact the poor.

Many nonprofits engaged in providing housing, health care, and other services for the poor rely on federal funding. And many of the people who get help from those charities also rely on welfare and other forms of governmental assistance. If funding is cut, what happens to those nonprofits and the people they serve?

Even if charitable giving rises about 4 percent in 2017 as expected, it probably won’t be enough to cover the huge increase in operating costs these charities will face. Nonprofit budgets will be stretched even further. Some charities may not be able to continue. And the poor will continue to suffer.

Having a big year in fundraising is great news. But as fundraisers we have to remember that our work isn’t defined entirely by the numbers. We’re in the business of helping people.

So in an era of potentially crushing cuts in federal funding, we’ll need to respond with tighter messaging in appeals, stronger offers, more donor engagement, wider acquisition efforts, more donor acknowledgement, more reporting back to donors – in short, all the things that are proven to motivate donors to give.

Even if the coming year breaks fundraising records too, we’ll still have our work cut out for us.

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Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Lessons for Fundraising

Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away recently. He was known as the “Godfather of Gore” for his campy movies.

But more importantly, he will always be remembered a master of direct-response copywriting, both for business and for nonprofits. See my guest post at Future Fundraising Now.

Among his many lessons for fundraisers, there are three that stand out:

  • It’s about “you,” the donor – not about “us,” the organization.
  • Use the motivators – fear, exclusivity, greed, guilt, and need for approval.
  • The best fundraising is episodic – it presents anecdotes, narratives, and events to donors.

This barely scratches the surface of Lewis’ wisdom on fundraising.

If you’re a student of copywriting and fundraising, then you should count Lewis, along with legends like John Caples, as one of your teachers. See the guest post here.

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“The Science of Ask Strings” and a surprising idea to test for fundraising results

The gift string is one of the most overlooked parts of fundraising but also one of the most important. That’s the assertion in “The Science of Ask Strings,” a fascinating paper by Nick Ellinger. (You can download it here.)

Ellinger delves into the research on gift strings and talks about the mental shortcuts (heuristics) that we as humans take all the time in our everyday lives, and he shows how the science of gift strings can fit into those shortcuts to match donors’ expectations and inspire their giving.

In that spirit, I offer an idea for gift string testing, and it’s this: simply take the liberty of filling in a gift amount by adding a check mark in the gift string. Your gift string would look like this (if your gift strings are based on highest past contribution):

[✓] $HPC   [ ]$HPC x 1.5   [ ]$HPC x 2   [ ]Other: $ _________

So you’d clearly be emphasizing the $15 highest past gift, like this:

[✓] $15   [ ]$25   [ ]$40  [ ]Other : $__________

In this case, you’d be using the concept of anchoring, which Ellinger discusses. You’re anchoring to the donor’s past gift, and the result might be more consistent giving from donors at that level with the check mark. Ellinger also suggests considering Most Recent Contribution for gift strings as opposed to Highest Past Contribution, since most donors are more “anchored” to their last gift than to their biggest.

What’s more, as Ellinger notes, the first gift-ask position has greater impact on response rate and average gift than the other positions. Again, the check mark could reinforce the prominence of the first ask.

If you test a check mark, be sure to use that and not an x, like this: [x]. The x says “no,” and your donors could assume that you’re blocking them from that particular gift option for some perplexing reason.

A check mark, on the other hand, says “yes.” This will likely convey to donors that you’re simplifying the difficult task of choosing how much to give. You’re actually helping them out. And they might appreciate it — and show it by giving the gift that you suggest.

You could test this with the other amounts in the string, of course, to see how donors might react, like this:

[ ]$15    [✓] $25    [ ]$40   [ ]Other : $__________

[ ]$15    [ ] $25    [✓ ]$40   [ ]Other : $__________

Each of these options — with the check mark in the first, second, or third position — would likely produce very difference test results.

A check mark in the second position, for example, might be an effective upgrade strategy.

In a donor appeal, the check mark could also work well when combined with a social-proof line on the response device like, “Many donor are giving this amount.”

A check mark might also be worth testing in acquisition to reinforce a certain giving amount or to try to upgrade donors, based on past acquisition results.

If you’re really into testing and wiling to experiment, you could try it with the open-ask option in a donor appeal, like this:

[ ]$15    [ ] $25    []$40   [✓]Other : $__________

Gift string testing is an ongoing process for a lot of fundraisers. If you have the chance to test the check mark, it’d be great if you could share the results.


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Why the plain talk of our presidential candidates is vital in fundraising appeals

One thing that can kill a fundraising appeal is trying to sound intelligent by using fifty-cent words.

That’s why, in this political season, it’s good to look at the two master communicators who are pitching their ideas — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They both speak at lower grade levels. That’s important for us as fundraisers because:

  • Average Americans read at a seventh-grade level.
  • Simple language is more direct.
  • Simple language makes you seem more capable.

See more at my guest post at Future Fundraising Now.

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When stories in appeals kill your fundraising results

With all the articles, blog posts, and white papers about storytelling in fundraising, it’s easy to think that all you have to do is drop a story into an appeal and there you go — success.

Not necessarily so. See my guest post at Future Fundraising Now for more.

It may be the stories themselves causing the problem. Here are five things to look out for that could be making your stories less effective:

  1. Avoid “purple prose.” Let the story tell itself.
  2. Keep it simple. Convoluted stories make donors give up.
  3. Make it about the donor. She’s the most important part.
  4. Hold back the solution. Let the donor provide it.
  5. Give the story space to breathe. Pacing is vital.

See more on each of these points here.

Stories can and do work. But it’s not like flipping a switch. Connecting with donors takes stories that are believable.

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