big statistics kill your fundraising

1 is more powerful than 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 in fundraising.

I call this the “1 Beats a Zillion” Law of Fundraising*.

Violators of the 1 Beats a Zillion Law are in for a painful lesson.

I’ve watched this law play out time and time again. It’s painful because donors don’t — and won’t — respond the way you think they will. This is a fact, this is the Law of 1 Beats a Zillion at work. And much like the Law of Gravity, ignore the truth of it at your peril.

Here’s how mistakes are made.

Say your cause is about helping children have clean water. It could be feeding people who are homeless or sheltering sex trafficking victims or rescuing Chihuahuas, whatever. The Law is true without regard to the cause.

You might be tempted to say that there are 100,000 children who do not have access to clean water. You can make the case by showing the dirty water. You might tell the prospective donor about the horrible diseases in the water. You could show photos of villages full of children in need. You can make the case that your organization is best equipped and positioned to provide this life-changing, life-saving water. You could say how many 100’s of thousands of children you’ve already helped. You could show pictures of villages full of children you’ve helped.

And donors will not respond as generously as you want (and need).


2 reasons really.

Donors give to help a person.

And donors are people (which complicates matters).

Now there’s an interesting study out there that backs me up.

Professor Paul Slovic just down the coast from me at the University of Oregon studied this phenomenon.

Slovic told volunteers about a hungry young girl and then tracked how much the people were willing to give to help her. He told another group of people the same story of the hungry young girl but backed up the need with data about the millions of others who were also starving.

You already know what happened, don’t you?

The group who had the additional context and statistical data about the millions who were also starving gave less — about half as much as those who were presented with then needs of just one girl. Yikes. Makes you want to rummage around and review your direct mail, doesn’t it?

Slovic makes this point: “As the numbers grow, we sort of lose the emotional connection to the people who are in need.”

Hmmm . . . that’s really intriguing, isn’t it? And not exactly the way many people think fundraising works.

Slovic doesn’t stop there.

Slovic says that it appears people may think about problems with big numbers attached to them this way: “Well, this is such a big problem. Is my donation going to be effective in any way?”

Go Professor Slovic!!!

The always cranky but equally always insightful Jeff Brooks over at Future Fundraising Now calls this “fundcrushing.” What he means by that is that charities and nonprofits who primarily use big statistics to back up their requests for donations actually hurt their funding. He’s right.

Here’s what all of this means to you if you serve a nonprofit or raise funds or connect with donors.

Consider the way you make your case or appeal to donors. You must concentrate on a person in need. That’s why at Oneicity, we’re focused on story and photos and details of a person. We tell the story of a person. Our clients get used to our constant push to know about the people who are helped or who are in need.

Examine your use of statistics. This is so tricky. It’s not like you can’t give some context and information. Understand, the focus and risk is nuanced. It’s not always easy to discern when you’ve slipped into discouraging a donor’s giving.

Decide to tell more stories of individuals in need. Tell about a person with as much detail, color and specifics as is strategically wise. At Oneicity, we talk about “concreteness” a bunch. We want to not only show pictures of people, we want to vividly tell the story with facts and details. Choose individual photos over group photos. Give us the face of a person. Tell about that person by name. Give us their story. That’s what draws us in.

I’m trying to get an interview with Professor Slovic to pick his brain some more. We’ll see how that goes.

Oh, and one more sad aspect of the Law of 1 Beats a Zillion.

Violations of the law crop up a bunch when traditional marketers (people who primarily serve niches that are for-profit businesses) do their version of marketing or fundraising for a nonprofit or charity. In business, a big pool of people to serve is a good thing. It makes sense if you’re selling aluminum siding or widgets or coffee to talk about the millions who want the product. The bigger the potential market, the better . . . sadly it is a painful learning when one comes up against the Law of 1 Beats a Zillion.

What about you? How have you seen the Law of 1 Beats a Zillion play out? I love hearing what you think!

One more thing, if you’re not signed up for our eNewsletter, you should give it a try. We talk about leadership, life and work ever other week or so. Never selling. No spam. And always about real life rubber meeting the road. I’d love to connect with you there.


*I know, I know that’s a dumb name for a law, but it’s my law so I can name it what I want. You can name your laws whatever you want. < grin >.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: James Russo)

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

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