Don’t hide the rough stuff from your donors

A lot of fundraisers make a huge mistake that they think is a favor to their donors: They soft-pedal and tone down the scope and depth of the need they exist to meet.

They’re afraid it’s too harsh. Too painful. Too likely to discourage donors.

In the case of poverty-fighting organizations, the dominant images are of happy, healthy, shiny-faced children. Messaging about the problem after it’s already been solved.

Big mistake. And not a favor to donors at all.

The Passionate Giving blog says it well at How To Transport Your Donor Into The World’s Suffering:

Rather than protecting our donors from all the reality of the need we should be using media, picture, choice of words and stories to literally take the donor right into the action — right to the scene.

Remember, the reason a donor gives YOU the money is so you can DO what they want to do but can’t. So they give you the money to do it on their behalf. That is the essence of fundraising – that’s how it works. I think it’s your obligation to tell things like they are.

Your donors can handle the rough stuff. They want to handle the rough stuff. Because with you as a partner, they can change it.

Want to know who complains about tough images most often?

It’s non-donors. Those images painfully and undeniably demonstrate the price of their non-giving. That’s unpleasant. No wonder they complain.

But donors? They don’t see hopelessness, degradation and personal failure. They see an opportunity to make the world better.

That’s why you owe it to your donors to be clear and unflinching about the need you face.

It’s good fundraising. And it’s good humanity.


Comments

6 responses to “Don’t hide the rough stuff from your donors”

  1. Completely agreed. But the question for me is, how much is too much? How far can we push donors?
    I’ve been schooled on the agency side and am ready to bring gritty stories to my donors. Recently we featured in both a newsletter and a corresponding email the heartbreaking story of a woman in recovery in our shelter. She suffered from horrific incest and physical abuse that drove her into addiction and three suicide attempts. In telling her story we didn’t dwell too deeply on these details, but used them to sketch a background to the remarkable recovery and hope that she now has.
    Both the newsletter and the email just bombed compared to the same slot in the previous year. I was disappointed.
    Too much? “Bad mother/parent” syndrome? Can you talk about the fine line of drama and grit vs. pushing beyond donors’ sympathies?

  2. Completely agreed. But the question for me is, how much is too much? How far can we push donors?
    I’ve been schooled on the agency side and am ready to bring gritty stories to my donors. Recently we featured in both a newsletter and a corresponding email the heartbreaking story of a woman in recovery in our shelter. She suffered from horrific incest and physical abuse that drove her into addiction and three suicide attempts. In telling her story we didn’t dwell too deeply on these details, but used them to sketch a background to the remarkable recovery and hope that she now has.
    Both the newsletter and the email just bombed compared to the same slot in the previous year. I was disappointed.
    Too much? “Bad mother/parent” syndrome? Can you talk about the fine line of drama and grit vs. pushing beyond donors’ sympathies?

  3. calissta7 Avatar
    calissta7

    I know you’re always saying not to assume donors think like we do, but I am also a donor to various agencies and as a donor I was recently thinking how one organization which always sends me “this child is starving”, “that child has a parasite”, fundraising copy has pushed me almost past the point of caring. I will likely still give to them, but mainly because while overseas I knew that organization’s in-country director, so there is a personal connection to the agency. I can’t be the only person who gets so tired of looking at sick and dying children that she stops looking at the mail at all. So I’ll echo the first comment’s question- where do you draw the line?

  4. calissta7 Avatar
    calissta7

    I know you’re always saying not to assume donors think like we do, but I am also a donor to various agencies and as a donor I was recently thinking how one organization which always sends me “this child is starving”, “that child has a parasite”, fundraising copy has pushed me almost past the point of caring. I will likely still give to them, but mainly because while overseas I knew that organization’s in-country director, so there is a personal connection to the agency. I can’t be the only person who gets so tired of looking at sick and dying children that she stops looking at the mail at all. So I’ll echo the first comment’s question- where do you draw the line?

  5. There probably is such a thing a too much rough stuff. I don’t know where it is, and my testing keeps surprising me how far the story and imagery can go and keep working better.
    I think there are specific types of stories that don’t work, and “Bad Mom” is one of them.
    For military aid charities, I’ve seen that you simply must show a clearly wounded service person (prosthetic limbs, in a wheelchair, etc.) — but he mustn’t look sad or defeated. Similar thing with many health charities.
    Calissta7, your observations of how it feels for you might be like what “normal” donors experience — but probably not. The only voice any organization should pay attention to is donor behavior. If donors stop responding to those appeals, they don’t work. Until then, the observations of professionals will most likely lead them astray.

  6. There probably is such a thing a too much rough stuff. I don’t know where it is, and my testing keeps surprising me how far the story and imagery can go and keep working better.
    I think there are specific types of stories that don’t work, and “Bad Mom” is one of them.
    For military aid charities, I’ve seen that you simply must show a clearly wounded service person (prosthetic limbs, in a wheelchair, etc.) — but he mustn’t look sad or defeated. Similar thing with many health charities.
    Calissta7, your observations of how it feels for you might be like what “normal” donors experience — but probably not. The only voice any organization should pay attention to is donor behavior. If donors stop responding to those appeals, they don’t work. Until then, the observations of professionals will most likely lead them astray.

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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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