There’s still time to adopt new and productive habits for 2020. Here I’ll offer seven fundraising resolutions for you to consider, all discussed more fully in my book How to Turn Your Words into Money.
1. I will not try to educate donors
When you try to educate people into giving, they don’t give. And they don’t become more educated. There’s a simple reason why: Most people, most of the time, have no interest in becoming more educated. In childhood we’re forced to learn what adults decide is important. After that, each of us sets our own learning agenda. Somebody else’s idea of what we should learn blows past us like a light breeze. In your mind, your organization’s mission is one of the most important issues facing the people of Planet Earth. To almost everyone else, it’s a distraction from much more interesting topics, like, say, the history of golf.
2. I will be specific in what I’m asking for
Make your fundraising as much as possible like shopping, using specificity and concrete details. Ask the donor to do something she can see. Let her provide a needed item. Ask her to take an action. Giver her the opportunity to create change. Make progress toward an understandable goal. Meals for hungry people, not elimination of food insecurity. An abstraction like “hope” is not a fundraising offer. Don’t let your call to action be vague like this: “Your gift will provide hope for hurting people.” That’s like trying to sell a box labeled “Shoes” but refusing to provide size, style, or color information. Few shoppers would give it a second’s thought.
3. I will focus on one person (which can be an animal, too)
A good fundraising story is about one person. It’s not a village, a neighborhood, or a drought-stricken region. Not the Arts or Democracy. It must be one person we can look in the eye and feel empathy toward. If your story is about the big picture, you short-circuit your donors’ ability to feel connected. The human brain can only take in one person at a time: One hungry child, not World Hunger; one polar bear that can’t find a patch of ice, not Climate Change; one homeless person who needs a place to stay, not Homelessness; one person fighting to overcome cancer, not Cancer. This one-person rule is nearly ironclad. If you stretch your one person to two—say, you have a wonderful story about a young girl in need and you make her baby brother the costar—you weaken the story and the response.
4. I will make the donor the hero of the story
Many fundraising stories make the organization the hero. It’s a way to showcase the effectiveness of the group. The thinking is, if I show how great our organization is, donors will understand and be moved to give. Sounds reasonable. But it’s a big mistake. The underlying assumption is wrong. Donors don’t give because you’re excellent. They give because they are excellent, and you help them realize their awesome selves. When you tell an organization-as-hero story, what you say is mostly irrelevant to donors. At best it’s boring. Sometimes it’s even annoying. But there’s more downside. The pronouns get out of whack. The word you disappears and the unpleasant we creeps in. Professional jargon like pandemic, sustainable, and civil society sprouts all over the place. And almost always there are bullet points used to organize complex information about processes.
5. I will not try to be clever
Cleverness is epidemic in journalism and advertising. Clever, punny headlines turn reading some news sites into a frustrating lost-in-the-funhouse exercise. This state of affairs is brought to you by people who are bored with being clear and literal. They also may have discovered that it’s beyond their skills to be plainspoken and exciting at the same time. In your fundraising, avoid wordplay (“We’re doing asbestos as we can”), symbolism, and abstraction. Ultimately, cleverness doesn’t work in fundraising because it’s about you, not your donors. It’s the technique of self-centered show-offs, not people who raise funds and connect donors with causes they care about.
6. I will recognize that my direct mail appeal is a distraction
You’re being paid to spend hours every week giving close and critical attention to your fundraising. By comparison, for donors you’re an occasional envelope in a crowded mailbox. One subject line in a long list of emails. A disruptive phone call during dinner. If you’re lucky, you have your donor’s attention for a few seconds. This means one thing: if your message isn’t completely self-evident in the few seconds of attention you have, it can’t get across. So keep it simple. How simple? Rule 1: Make only one call to action at a time. If you’re asking for money, don’t toss in an invitation to your event, or a planned giving offer. Rule 2: Make sure your call to action can be expressed in one sentence. Or less. Save the rain forest. Give a needy child a book. Support Parkinson’s research.
7. I will recognize that my donors are older than me
When you write fundraising copy, you’re not talking to people like your pals. You’re communicating with people like your parents, your aunties, and your grandparents. Think about the ways you talk with your elderly relatives. Tone, vocabulary, subject matter, allusions—it’s different, probably very different from your discourse with coworkers and friends. This is a social adjustment we all make without thinking much about it. But in fundraising you have to be conscious of the difference. One obvious approach to avoid is hype. Most advertising is aimed at younger audiences, which is why it employs so much hype—big, bold, exciting claims like Best! First! Biggest! Newest! Your donors weren’t born yesterday. They know that something claiming to be the greatest ever probably isn’t so great.