This post originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest.
With year-end fundraising season fast approaching, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing solely on the one special project or initiative your organization would really like to fund. Other nonprofit leaders are frantically crafting year-end appeals, checking and re-checking their donor lists, and trying to come up with creative new ways to engage donors.
No surprise, then, that this is the time of year when we’re routinely approached by nonprofits who want to know how they can develop a strategy for new donor acquisition, or how they can turn their one-time donors into loyal supporters.
The secret, we tell them, lies in connecting donors to the specific and the general – in the same appeal.
Allow me to give you an example. Let’s assume your organization’s mission is to address a really big problem — say eliminating hunger in the United States. Such a goal, and the language used to articulate it, can be hard for many people to process. In our years of testing fundraising appeals, we’ve found that potential supporters frequently don’t understand or respond to messages asking them to support such a wide-ranging goal. Why? Simply put, it’s too daunting. As a potential donor, what’s the point of making a donation if you don’t feel like your donation will make a dent in the problem it is meant to address?
For a lot of nonprofits, a not atypical scenario looks like this:
1. A donor – let’s call her Margaret – receives a direct-mail appeal asking her to support Organization X, which is working to eliminate hunger in the United States: “Won’t you help us end hunger in America?”
2. Because she’s a caring person, Margaret is a little overwhelmed. She isn’t a celebrity activist or a deep-pocketed philanthropist, and she only has a couple of hundred dollars set aside for charitable giving before the year ends. So many people in America struggle with hunger and food insecurity – how can her small donation possibly help?
3. Margaret decides not to make a donation because she doesn’t think it will make a difference.
Instead, we counsel our clients to tell the story of one individual who has been helped by their organization, in the belief that it’s much easier for a donor to grasp how their donation was used to feed a hungry individual or food-insecure family rather than contribute to solving the problem of hunger in America. Here’s what that might look like:
1. Margaret receives a direct-mail appeal asking her to support Organization X, which is working to eliminate hunger in the United States. The appeal tells the story of a woman in Margaret’s community who was helped just a few months ago by donors like Margaret. “The support of generous donors like you makes it possible for a single mom like Donna to feed her family. Will you help us feed another neighbor in need?”
2. Being a caring person, Margaret is moved. As a mother, she knows how hard it can be to provide for one’s family, and she’s pleased to know her donation can help others like Donna.
3. Margaret decides to make to donation to Organization X because she truly believes her support will make a difference.
Problem solved? Well, not quite. Communicating need in terms of a single individual or family and appealing to a donor’s empathetic nature is only the first piece of the puzzle.
Donations often are made on impulse, meaning when Margaret read the direct-mail letter, she could relate to Donna’s plight and wanted to do what she could to help another person in need. What she didn’t feel, however, was a deep connection to Organization X. She might not even have been aware of its mission.
So while Margaret made a donation – something that made her feel good and that also supported the work of Organization X – there’s no guarantee that she’ll do it again.
For people to become a loyal supporter of an organization willing to take regular actions on its behalf, they need to be convinced that they are effecting change in a small but tangible way. They also need to be told how those small actions build on each other – and the actions of other people like them – to effect social change on a much larger scale.
In most cases, the failure to do so starts with the organization. When you and your colleagues can’t conceptualize or don’t understand how smaller actions by your supporters lead to bigger change, it’s nearly impossible for your donors to figure it out. Regardless of the action you’re asking individual supporters to take, the key is to show how taking this one action serves a greater goal.
Let’s go back to our example:
1. Margaret receives a direct-mail appeal asking her to support Organization X, which is working to eliminate hunger in the United States. The appeal tells the story of a woman in Margaret’s community who was helped just a few months ago by donors like Margaret. “The support of generous donors like you makes it possible for a single mom like Donna to feed her family. And your support today will bring us one step closer to eliminating hunger in the United States. Will you help us feed another neighbor in need like Donna?”
2. Margaret is moved. As a mother, she knows how difficult it can be to provide for one’s family, and she’s pleased to know her donation can help someone else in need.
3. Margaret decides to make a donation, and, upon receiving a thank-you letter from Organization X a few weeks later, she decides to become a monthly supporter of the organization and its efforts to eliminate hunger – knowing full well that it can only succeed one person at a time.
For someone to feel a sense of ownership in a cause, she needs to believe that her actions – whether it’s signing a petition, sharing a post on social media, or making a donation – will, when combined with the actions of others, make a tangible difference in the lives of others.
Remember: Every time you ask a potential supporter to act on behalf of your organization, it should always be in the context of how that action will advance the cause your organization is working to address. Keep that in mind as you gear up for the fundraising season ahead (and all the fundraising seasons to come), and best of luck!