Mind your metaphors if you want donors to respond

by guest blogger George Crankovic

There’s this idea that metaphors are something you sprinkle into copy for added interest like a dash of paprika in a borscht.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The metaphors we use dictate how we think about a topic, and — more importantly for our purposes in writing fundraising copy — they dictate how people will respond to our messaging.

As some interesting cognitive-science research reveals.

In this study, Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning, researchers created two paragraphs about crime in a city.


  • In one paragraph, crime was referred to as a wild beast preying on the city.
  • In the other paragraph, crime was described as a virus infecting the city.

Other than those references, everything in both paragraphs was the same, including the crime statistics.

Half of the test subjects got the “crime is a wild beast” paragraph, while the other half got the “crime is a virus” paragraph. After reading the paragraphs, people were asked what the city should do about crime.

Those who read the “crime is a beast” paragraph were far more likely to want tougher enforcement, including capturing and punishing criminals. A full 74% of them backed strong enforcement, while only 26% of them suggested social reform.

People who read the “crime is a virus” paragraph had a different reaction. Only 56% of them suggested enforcement, while 43% backed social reform.

Same problem, different metaphors, different responses.

It makes sense. If crime is a wild beast, then you want swift, strong action to fight it. But if it’s a virus, you need research, diagnosis, and understanding.

This is important for fundraising because metaphors find their way into the copy for an appeal. Let’s say the cause poverty. You might refer to it as a social ill, a cancer, a crushing burden, a plague, a curse, an enemy, or any number of ways. Each one will set donors down a different path.

Metaphors that involve action, forcefulness, and energy tend to stir stronger emotions in donors, and that in turn will more likely rouse them to give.

But even so, getting the right metaphor can be tricky: The one you like may not be the one your donors respond to. In fact, it probably won’t be.

That’s why the only way to know for sure which metaphor is the right one is to test. And when you do, the payoff is the chance to engage donors on a deeper level.


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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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