If your fundraising looks “professional,” expect trouble

I was talking to the manager of a radio station about a fundraising special he’d aired.

“It got no response,” he said. “So we re-made it and it worked great.”

I asked him what was wrong with the original program.

“Nobody called in.”

Why didn’t they call in? Bad production?

“No, the production values were just fine.”

So what was wrong?

He made a goofy, unctuous expression; his voice dropped down about an octave, and he said with way too much expression, Would you find it in your heart to give a special gift? The F and the T in “gift” were exaggeratedly over-enunciated. He was parodying the way radio professionals sometimes talk.

“It wasn’t authentic,” he concluded (in a normal voice). “It was too pretty.”

He went on to talk about how commercial radio has a distinct sound: Well-modulated voices, blended together with tasteful, unobtrusive music. It sounds nice, but in the process, it fades into background sound for listeners much of the time.

If you want to be heard, you have to sound different.

You’ll defeat yourself if you strive for perfect professional congruence with the surrounding material.

Same is true in other forms of fundraising, like direct mail or email. The message that works is the messy, odd, different one that doesn’t look like the work of a professional. (Though it takes a real professional to give it that sense but still make it clear and compelling.)

How many millions of hours are spent making fundraising exactly wrong — but nice and professional?

Our donors get marketed to all day. You’ll do better if you don’t seem to be part of that noise. Don’t be too pretty.

(This post first appeared on October 26, 2012.)


Comments

4 responses to “If your fundraising looks “professional,” expect trouble”

  1. Years ago, public radio tried something called ‘listener-focused fundraising’. The idea was that the pledge breaks should sound exactly like the regular programming in tone, pacing, language, production values, etc. It was a miserable failure. Stations that adopted this approach saw results 50% or more below their own average. Nothing in the on air messaging stood out, so listeners ignored the appeals. Needless to say, the experiment was never repeated.

  2. Years ago, public radio tried something called ‘listener-focused fundraising’. The idea was that the pledge breaks should sound exactly like the regular programming in tone, pacing, language, production values, etc. It was a miserable failure. Stations that adopted this approach saw results 50% or more below their own average. Nothing in the on air messaging stood out, so listeners ignored the appeals. Needless to say, the experiment was never repeated.

  3. Thanks, Tom. That’s helpful and enlightening. It’s easy to say about that, “What idiot thought up that idea?” It’s more helpful to credit them for trying something different, learning from it, and moving on. I suppose a more likely to succeed approach for public radio would be to really amp up the difference sound during pledge breaks: Play country music, staff up with obnoxious shock-jocks, air long strings of poorly-produced spots for weird products…

  4. Thanks, Tom. That’s helpful and enlightening. It’s easy to say about that, “What idiot thought up that idea?” It’s more helpful to credit them for trying something different, learning from it, and moving on. I suppose a more likely to succeed approach for public radio would be to really amp up the difference sound during pledge breaks: Play country music, staff up with obnoxious shock-jocks, air long strings of poorly-produced spots for weird products…

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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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