This one's going to be a longer-than-usual read. Settle in. Or print it out.
Welcome to the world premiere of my Five Realizations approach to writing your charity's case for support, a case that will effectively sell donors on your...
> and shockingly bright ideas.
I developed this Five Realizations approach recently for a research university. The new president, convinced that academic reputation is directly linked to philanthropy, wants to turn her institution into a fundraising powerhouse.
The Five Realizations approach offers nervous deans and professors an easy, reliable set of guidelines that can help inspire concise, clear, and deeply persuasive proposals to put in front of major-gift prospects.
You're not a research university? Does not matter. Any charity can profitably follow the Path to Donor Nirvana. An annual appeal from a local library is the same as a $100 million capital campaign in one respect: both need an underlying, donor-centered case for support, in order to produce good results.
---Your first realization:
The case for support is NOT about your organization's need for cash.
The case IS about the savory, enticing opportunity you put in front of the donor.
What kinds of opportunity? To change a life (scholarships for poor kids). To save a life (medicines in south Sudan). To relieve pain (grief counseling for widows). To bring hope (research that promises to find a cure). To right a wrong (legal aid). To bring something wonderful into the world (the arts). To fight a good fight (why did millions of ordinary Americans contribute $100 apiece to the 2008 Obama presidential campaign? According to Yale professor, Dean Karlan, it was about "participating in a fight" those Americans felt was worth winning).
And those are just the "objective" opportunities. The "subjective," emotional opportunities are even more compelling. Number one among them? The opportunity to feel good about yourself.
---Your second realization:
Every donor communication sends a message. Unfortunately, more often than not, it's the WRONG message.
This is particularly true of "retention" material, which is all the stuff you send after you've acquired a new donor: thank you's, welcome packages, renewal appeals, upgrade appeals, bequest appeals, newsletters, annual reports, special updates from the field, and other forms of stewardship.
Currently, the predominant voice (I've analyzed thousands of samples by now) goes like this: "We did this great thing. We did that great thing. And oh, by the way, if you sent a check, thank you very much!"
This is backwards. It hogs the credit. Effective donor communications push as much of the credit as reasonable at the donor, with deep appreciation. It isn't merely a matter of saying thank you. You also have to say, "With your help, all these amazing things happened. And without your help, they won't." And you have to say it every chance you can, at every point of potential contact with donors and prospects, including your mission statement.
Last October, I did a quick survey of the mission statements posted by some of the world's larger charities on their websites. Only one of those mission statements even mentioned donors. That's a mistake. Donors need to be in the picture ... everywhere.
Small and young charities sometimes "get" this aspect of the Way to Donor Nirvana faster than large institutions; where even a bad day is a good day, relatively speaking. A huge volume of gifts can become a narcotic. If you're an old-guard charity making millions by swinging at low-hanging fruit decade after decade, why improve? It takes visionaries, not functionaries.
---Your third realization:
You're selling impact -- i.e., the impact of the donor's gifts. And for this realization, I want to publicly and humbly thank For Impact | The Suddes Group.
You are selling the impact on where the donor lives: her world, her region, her community, her street, her neighbors, her roots, the views she see every day out the car windows, the views she see every day on the news.
You're selling the impact on what the donor loves: her family, herself, all children (we are biologically wired to protect the young, anyone's young), and her many "tribes," which are the groups she identifies with (her faith, her school, her values and beliefs).
---Your fourth realization:
You suffer from an affliction called "the curse of knowledge," identified by Chip and Dan Heath in their bestseller, Made to Stick. The curse of knowledge ruins your best efforts at persuasion.
Dear fundraiser, this is a given: you have lost the essential ability to see your organization the way outsiders see it. This transformation happens within days of being hired. And there are no exceptions. One of the earliest symptoms? Your house jargon becomes invisible to you.
Consider this piece of web journalism, intended for the general public:
In another study Estefan is conducting, young gay men and women will be working together to create resources to teach health and social care practitioners about what is important to them when they present for care and support.
I've highlighted in red the jargon that slipped through. Here's how the passage really reads to the non-specialist mind:
In another study Estefan is conducting, young gay men and women will be working together to create something, I'm not really sure what to teach somebody, but again I don't know exactly about what is important to them when they yeah, I guess I can more or less figure out what they mean by this, and isn't that a grammatical error?.
As a communicator, you're trying to set a donor's hair on fire ... and jargon is a flame retardant.
---Your fifth (and final) realization:
You need to make it shorter. All of it. The English language has added 500,000 new words since 1950. A Westerner now sees more images in a day than a Victorian man saw in his entire lifetime. In 1990, the Internet didn't exist for the ordinary person. In 2010, the average US adult spends 13 hours a week with the Internet.
We are over-communicated to. We are distracted.
You don't have to write a lot to make a compelling point. A few years ago, I helped a campaign raise $50 million in funding on a core message that was just 25 well-chosen words long.
Stay visionary. Stay focused. Stay simple.
Consider this for your next tattoo: "Fewer words. Better pictures."