Blog home

Make your donor an action hero

By Claire Axelrad
November 13, 2019

Neon sign stating, We can be heroes for just one day
Photo by Gabriel Bassino on Unsplash

What’s the most effective nonprofit fundraising and marketing strategy?

“Please send money” is not it.

That might work with your mom.

But moms are generally captive audiences who love unconditionally.

Donors love conditionally.

Donors give on the condition you make them feel good.

That’s why fundraising guru and mentor Hank Rosso defined fundraising as “the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.”

It turns out there’s one surefire way to bring your donor joy. Which of these do you guess does the joy delivery trick?

  • Telling a story of your nonprofit?
  • Telling a story of your donor?

Here’s what one storytelling and branding expert suggests:

Most marketing makes the company the hero.

Most companies go to great lengths to prove that their product is better.

Most marketer’s main aim is to close the sale.

The most effective marketing makes the customer the hero.

Beloved brands show people who they can become in the presence of their product.

The best marketers give people something to believe in, not just something to buy.

Bernadette Jiwa, The Story of Telling

Above all else, people want to believe in themselves

And donors are people first.

Don’t treat them as ATMs.

It’s not about the money. It’s about the impact people can create.

Get inside would-be donors’ heads and hearts by telling a story in which they can be the hero who gives the story a happy ending.

Tell them repeatedly: “You can do this!”

There’s no greater joy than being able to save the day.

If you can help your donor look in the mirror and love who they see, you’ll win a loyal friend and supporter.

Turn “convince and convert” on its head

Rather than trying to hit folks over the head with persuasive facts and figures designed to make them feel guilty if they don’t give to your cause, what about gently leading them into a story that responds to the natural human longing for purpose and meaning?

Let’s take a look at the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. Once people have basic needs met (e.g., food, shelter, and physiological needs) they move up the pyramid to meet other needs. Progressively, these needs include: career; family; community; creativity; identity; self-actualization.

There is a related Donor Hierarchy of Needs.

While there’s plenty of psychology literature about the self-actualization pinnacle on the Maslow Hierarchy, in non-psychological terms donors at this level just feel darn good. In fact, even scientists and psychologists have found just thinking about and doing philanthropic acts makes people feel virtuous and happy. In fact, MRI testing shows that people contemplating giving away their money get a “feel good” shot of dopamine. The resulting warm glow represents their realization of their potential and inner peace.

Your job as a philanthropy facilitator

It’s not to get folks thinking about all the things going wrong (e.g., animals getting abused; children going hungry; rivers becoming polluted; schools going without arts and music curriculums; veterans living without access to jobs and healthcare) so much as it is to get them thinking about how things might go better.

Focusing on the bad stuff just makes people feel depressed and hopeless.

It makes them want to turn away, not toward.

Focusing on the good has the opposite effect.

It makes people want to jump into your story and become a part of something that makes them feel worthy and joyful.

Your job is to help folks see the light at the end of the tunnel—especially how they can personally shine that light, restore hope, and make the world a better place.

Donors don’t so much need to be convinced your cause is worthwhile

The value for donors is not so much what you do, or the values your organization enacts.

The value of philanthropy for your donor is a self-fulfilling “worthiness” prophecy.

Donors need help believing they are worthwhile. They want to be seen as good people. In fact, so good you consider them heroes.

When you focus on how the donor can be a hero, you get them thinking about doing a selfless philanthropic act.

It’s best to assume from the get-go your donor will want to do a good deed when presented with the opportunity.  Don’t so much convince them you’re worthy; just convince them you believe in them!

Use your most powerful catalyst to action

Robert Payton, president emeritus of the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, defines philanthropy as “voluntary action for the public good.”

Guess what moves people to action?

  • What do politicians tell to win over voters and get them to go to the polls?
  • What do teachers tell to engage students so they want to attend class?
  • What do talk show and cable news show hosts tell to get folks to tune in?
  • What do nonprofit fundraisers tell to show people how to become the best version of themselves?

Humans are wired to understand the world through storytelling. Stories are the oldest form of human communication—before writing! People naturally enter into stories and become transported by the lives of the characters. They feel what they feel, fear what they fear, love what they love, and hope for what they hope for. And somewhere along the way, they consider what they can do to give the story a happy ending.

Storytelling is a strategic way to communicate value so it will be meaningfully perceived (I can create value) and enthusiastically received (I will create value).

And the best way to tell stories to donors is in a manner that puts them, not your nonprofit, at the center.

Give donors something to believe in. Something so valuable they simply can’t refuse your offer.


This is the way heroes are born!

Tags: Fundraising