fundraising: the secret ingredient

There’s a formula that works in direct response. It worked 60 years ago, and it still works today. (If your fundraising isn’t utilizing this formula, we need to talk. Really.) It goes something like this:

1. There is a big problem (homelessness, human trafficking, insert your organization’s mission here)

2. We know how to solve the problem.

3. You can help solve the problem. (No, not people out there, but YOU Steve Thomas, YOU can help solve the problem.)

4. If you don’t help, this is what will happen.

5. Please help now.

Add in a story with emotional impact that illustrates the problem and you’ve got the formula for instant gold.

So why do so many fundraising pieces fall flat? It’s because, “We could never say that . . .” Frankly, we’re too scared to share the bad news. (See number 4 above)

You’re likely communicating well with donors (and prospective donors) to help them understand the problem your ministry solves. I’m sure you tell them how you go about dealing with the problem. Maybe you even tell them how they will be different and better by joining in your cause . . .

But . . . do you tell them what happens if your work doesn’t go on?

The one missing ingredient in most fundraising messaging is the bad news . . . and it’s usually because someone in leadership feels “We could never say that . . .” Or if we say that, we’re manipulating them. Or guilting them into giving.

Really? If your work is real. And the problem you’re solving is real. And the consequences are real. Donors deserve to know what happens if they don’t help.

If you are going to have to cut back on services, say it. If someone will die if the work doesn’t continue, say it. If someone is going to go without food, or shelter, or medical care, or the research is going to stop . . . say it.

Of course, it’s not about budget or guilt. It is about helping people who love you understand the consequences of their inaction.

One survey participant I met with recently shared this, “If you’re not willing to tell me what happens if you don’t have the money, then your mission is either exaggerated, you don’t need my money, or your cause must not be that important.” Wow. That should get your attention.

So please . . . go ahead, help us understand the downside of ignoring your appeal. (The hard part is to resist heaping on the guilt or making it always about your budget).

Give us the consequences; it’ll help us make a good decision. And it tells us your cause is real.

So, what do you think; is it ok to say it? Tell me what you think about sharing “bad news.” I always like hearing from you.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: Horia Varlan)

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

2 thoughts on “fundraising: the secret ingredient”

  1. Ah Steve,

    I’ll bet you knew I couldn’t resist taking the bait on this one.

    I’m not sure that you defined the definition of “works.” Does it mean that 10% or 12% of those who received the letter responded with a gift? What if the appeal was a blowout success and 15% percent responded and it had a 12 to 1 ROI? And because of it the work could go on, and we didn’t have to cut back services, and no one died, or had to be denied food, shelter or medicine?

    What did we just communicate to the 85% or that didn’t give? Didn’t we just say to them, “If you don’t give, someone else will pick up the slack, but you’ll be sure to hear the bad news again next month (and that time we’ll mean it).”

    If we define what “works” by the myopic results of a particular appeal, then I would say that the old “bad news” approach can work. Bud if what works is defined by truly engaging people in the cause and empowering them to solve the problem, I think the bad news appeal strategy only promotes callousness and skepticism in donors.

    By the way, I love working with you and the Oneicity team. Iron sharpens Iron.



  2. Ah Jeff, I had hoped the conversation would happen, if not with you, someone might!

    And of course you did get me on the incomplete, absent or vague definition of “works.”

    I don’t disagree that bad strategy can create callousness but I think that donors have to understand the implication of unaddressed problems–both societally and personally (what happens in a community and to a person).

    I wouldn’t sacrifice long-term results for a short-sighted result (i.e., guilting a donor or scaring a donor).

    You worked with me enough to know that I don’t only want results by impact but overall for the org. I believe that much of what great organizations do is developing donors. Part of that is helping donors understand the reality.

    Great thinking (as always).

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