Why are your donors interested in the wrong things?

In the early morning hours of a late-winter day in 1990, two men dressed as police officers got into an art museum. They tied up the two guards on duty in the basement and proceeded to grab 13 pieces of art, most notably two Rembrandts and a Vermeer. They left with their loot and were never caught.

The value of the stolen art was estimated at $200 million dollars. At the time it was the biggest art heist ever. Despite intense investigations, the case remains unsolved.

This isn’t the plot of a movie. It’s something that happened at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. If you haven’t been to this museum, there are two things you should know:

  1. You should visit, any chance you get. It’s one of the coolest places in Boston.
  2. It’s different from most museums. More crowded with art from everywhere and from across the centuries. It’s almost chaotic, compared to most museums, and that’s because Isabella Stewart Gardner, a wealthy art collector, made it that way. On her death she created a $1 million endowment and stipulated that the collection be permanently exhibited without any kind of change.

Gardner’s stipulation means that when those pieces of art were stolen, museum officials couldn’t just rearrange the collection to fill the empty spots.

They had to leave empty frames where the pieces had been.

Empty picture frames.

Empty_Frames

It’s probably not surprising that those empty frames are the most popular and sought-out things exhibited in the entire amazing museum.

But come on! In a museum packed floor-to-ceiling with incredible and unique works of art — people go looking for empty picture frames? I know I was especially looking forward to them.

That must drive the people who work at the museum up the wall. I don’t know this; I just imagine it to be so. For all I know they might just love the empty picture frames.

There’s a reason visitors to the museum love the empty picture frames:

They tell a story. A dramatic story that takes no background knowledge to understand and appreciate.

Of course, every piece in the museum also tells a story, many of them dramatic. That’s true of most things in most museums, and those stories are what the museums want to share with their visitors…

…who may or may not be interested in them.

I’m telling you this for a reason that impacts fundraisers in a big way: People — all people, including your donors — love stories.

But they don’t love all stories equally.

And that means they they may not care about the story you want them to love. They prefer to look at the empty picture frames.

You can scold and cajole them all you like, but that won’t change what grabs their attention. Scolding is not interesting, so most won’t even notice you’re scolding them.

You can hide the stories they like, hoping that will channel them toward the stories you want them to like. But that won’t work. They’ll just stop paying attention.

Or you can work with the stories they want. Stop trying to force them into your world and your preferred stories. Enter their world and their stories — and use those to motivate them to action.

This is not easy to do. Because the heroes of those stories won’t be you. Or your brilliant staff and leadership. It sometimes won’t even the people you exist to help — though they will likely be in the stories you tell.

The story that will grab their attention like an empty frame on a museum wall will be about the amazing action they can be part of … how they can change the world by putting their values into action … how they can make a difference in a distressing world …

Things that are not about your organization. You are a secondary character in those stories.

That might make you cringe, like a curator of an amazing museum watching people rush past important and unique things to gather in front of an empty picture frame.

But your best response is not to fight it. You’ll never win, because people love the stories they choose to love. You have no vote in this matter.

So work with the stories your donors are drawn to. Grab their attention. Thrill them. Connect with them.

People who visit to see your empty picture frames are hundreds of times more likely to engage in the other stories you have to offer than those who don’t show up at all.


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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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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.

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