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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Rage donating — what does it mean for our fundraising?

Donations to progressive charities took off after President Trump was elected. And since then, this kind of ‘backlash’ giving has come to be known as rage donating.

It’s been called a lazy, middle-class citizen’s form of protest as well as a new form of donor motivation.

But is it really new? And is it really a lazy protest?

For the people who give to causes, this kind of giving isn’t new at all. You see an abused-animal story on the news that outrages you, and you give to the ASPCA. You see a homeless panhandler on the street, then give to The Salvation Army. You hear about the rise of a hate group, then give to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

People have been reacting to events by donating probably as long as there have been nonprofits.

What’s more, for those who give to causes, there’s nothing lazy about it.

This is a legitimate way to make your feelings known and make a difference. Sure, you could bend your neighbor’s ear about the need to save Social Security. Or pick up a sign and march in front of the Capitol to protest entitlement cuts.

Those are good things to do, but in and of themselves, the impact will be fleeting, even though it might be momentarily satisfying. But by donating to a nonprofit, you can bring the full weight of that organization to bear on the problem, and that’s more likely to actually cause something to change.

Is so-called rage donating the new anger-driven way of giving that it’s being hyped up to be? Doesn’t seem like it.

Instead, it’s more like the natural result when a nonprofit’s messaging is relevant and in step with the donor’s values. And that’s just good fundraising.



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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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