How to tell donors what they need to know

Excerpted from my book, The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand: Motivating Donors to Give, Give Happily, and Keep on Giving.

MRNPBcoverstanding180

I’d been in India maybe 20 minutes, in a cab from the airport, when I saw him: a small man, sitting by the road, his feet stretched out toward traffic. Something was wrong with the shape of his face — as if one eye and the cheek below had been scooped away. Then my gaze was drawn to his foot. Swollen, mottled pink, surrounded by a cloud of flies. It didn’t look like a foot, but more like an underinflated football, oozing, with toenails poking out of it like broken blades.

Leprosy.

In the days that followed, I saw a lot of squalor and suffering. But that man with leprosy stayed in my mind. How far into suffering and brokenness can someone sink?

Years later, I got the chance to work with an organization that fights leprosy. The disease is completely curable with an inexpensive course of antibiotics. Caught early enough, it will leave no mark, no wound, no stigma. Sign me up, I thought. As causes go, you can hardly beat curing people of leprosy.

But there was a problem: the leaders of the organization at the time were dedicated to removing the word leprosy from the world’s vocabulary. I had to write compelling copy about “Hansen’s disease” — and never mention the other name of the disease.

That was hard. But I could work with it: untreated Hansen’s is like a torment from the lower levels of Dante’s hell. They get cuts, burns, and other injuries that most people easily avoid or limit. (If you put your hand on a hot stove, you’ll jerk it away instantly, before serious damage is done. Someone with Hansen’s likely won’t.) Infections spread because they don’t hurt. That — combined with clawing caused by eroding cartilage and tendons, is what makes them lose fingers, toes, and limbs. Noses decay and faces are ruined. Blindness is common because they lose the ability to blink, and their eyes feel no irritation. People literally scratch their own eyes out.

The even greater horror is how people with the disease are treated by others. They are often utterly rejected by everyone they know and love. They live in complete isolation. Often, the spirit is even more damaged by the disease than the body.

Call it leprosy or call it Hansen’s disease — I had a story to tell.

But I couldn’t.

Eliminating the word leprosy was only part of the organization’s crusade. They believed that we played into the stigma of leprosy any time we talked about its harmful effects. As far as they were concerned, descriptions of people with Hansen’s disease were no different from the rocks and cruel insults that are hurled at them.

The things I’ve just told you would not have been allowed. We were enjoined instead to tell hope-filled stories of patients who bravely made lives for themselves despite disabilities. Or people who’d been cured early and now lived normal lives.

As you can probably imagine, getting donors to rally around the cause of helping healthy people who used to have a disease nobody has ever heard of was a bit rough. In a world where children have cancer, people are homeless, earthquakes flatten cities, puppies are abused, and the polar ice caps are melting, who has the bandwidth for an obscure disease that seems to pose no meaningful threat to anyone?

You won’t be shocked to know that the organization was in steep financial decline. Their fundraising just didn’t work. Working on their projects, I felt like a baseball player stepping up to the plate and having the pitcher hurl a Nerf ball into my strike zone. It didn’t matter how hard I swung.

I understand those Hansen’s disease professionals. Their approach was rooted in compassion. Hansen’s disease wasn’t just a “cause” for them — they worked among patients, knew them personally, felt their agony. They didn’t want to wallow in that pain and exploit it. When they looked at one of their patients, they saw a human being, not a disease. They wanted the whole world to see it that way.

But there’s another truth they were missing, one more apropos to the situation at hand: You can’t make people care about something that’s abstract to them.

These professionals were choosing to deny donors the very information that had transformed their own lives — the stories and images that sent them down a path to becoming heroes in the fight against leprosy.

They were keeping donors in the dark because it felt better for them that way. Like many non-profit professionals, they were unable to get outside of their own heads.

This is a defining struggle for many nonprofits. They know the horrors they’re fighting. They know them more deeply and clearly than you or I ever will. But they’ve moved on to a different place, a place where looking at horrors is superfluous, even harmful.

They’re like good soldiers who fought, who crawled through the mud with bullets whistling just over their heads — until they were promoted. Now they fight from conference rooms in the Pentagon. Those well-ordered chambers are critical to the war effort, but the mud-and-bullets side of war is what most people think of as the real thing.

Donors aren’t with us in the conference rooms or on their faces in the mud. Most of them will never be there.

And there’s nothing wrong with those “shallow” donors. They can support your cause wholeheartedly if they catch the vision. Those “shallow” donors make the philanthropic world go ’round. Their less advanced understanding is no barrier to giving. The barrier to giving is weak fundraising that fails to meet them where they are.

When nonprofit professionals mandate abstract, “professional” ways of describing their issues in their fundraising, they make a choice: to motivate fewer donors, raise less revenue, and do less good. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is way too high a price for being able to feel good about your fundraising. To put it bluntly: How many people still have leprosy because some people refused to say leprosy?

That refusal to connect with real-life donors is one of the differences between an ineffective fundraising brand and a brand that powers fundraising. And the ability to get outside of your own head and talk to donors, rather than to yourself, is the first and most important step to a donor-focused brand.

The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand is available at:


Comments

Leave a Reply

What this blog is about

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.

Blog policies

Subscribe

Get new posts by email:

About the blogger

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.


Archives

Blogroll

Categories


Search the blog

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.

Recent Comments

About the blogger

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.

Blog Roll

someone’s blog