Don’t explain away the power of symbolism

Every day, members of Congress sell and give away flags that have flown over the US Capitol. You can even request a flag that flew on a specific day that’s important to you.


Now every rational person will agree: There’s no physical difference whatsoever between a flag that flew over the Capitol on a special day and a flag that didn’t. No difference at all.


Does that make our congressmen con artists and the people who want the flags idiots?


Of course not. The Capitol-flown flags are more “flaggy” than regular flags, more imbued with the essence of America. That’s why people want them.


It’s similar with fundraising offers that tell donors 0% of their gift will go to overhead. Look at it scientifically, and there’s no difference between a no-overhead gift and a regular gift. But there’s a symbolic difference that matters to many donors.


I only bring it up because a recent post at The GiveWell Blog, Robin Hood, Smile Train and the “0% overhead” donor illusion, calls out Robin Hood and Smile Train for their uses of the no-overhead claim:



If identifying effectiveness with “low overhead” is silly, the idea of “0% overhead” simply seems absurd…. it doesn’t (and can’t) mean that there are no operating costs affecting the total costs of the program. Rather, it’s another case of zooming in on “your” money, rather than discussing the true total costs of the program you’re supporting the existence of. It makes no sense in an analytical framework; it’s a feel-good gimmick.

There’s no doubt that when you tell donors 0% of their giving does to overhead, there’s a sort of shell-game going on. Whoever it is who’s covering the overhead is not covering something else. But the claim is literally true: The particular money sent by the donor does not cover overhead at all.


Fundraisers: don’t fall into the trap of thinking It’s not logical, so there’s something wrong with it. That puts you at odds with human psychology. And if you’re out of touch with your donors’ hearts and minds, you aren’t going to be raising much money.


If you can find a way to truthfully tell donors their giving won’t go to overhead, do it!


Comments

2 responses to “Don’t explain away the power of symbolism”

  1. Please can we stop enabling this myth that nonprofits don’t have, or don’t deserve to have, administrative costs? Just like a “regular” business, nonprofits need offices, heat, lights, computers and staff — preferably staff paid a living wage. We should be transparent enough to help donors understand that, not cooking the books to perpetuate unrealistic expectations.

  2. Please can we stop enabling this myth that nonprofits don’t have, or don’t deserve to have, administrative costs? Just like a “regular” business, nonprofits need offices, heat, lights, computers and staff — preferably staff paid a living wage. We should be transparent enough to help donors understand that, not cooking the books to perpetuate unrealistic expectations.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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