fundraising: you can’t lie

I don’t know about you, but at our house there isn’t much time to watch television. So based on the recommendation of a trusted friend I checked out a new series. And I gotta say, it’s fascinating. Now my new favorite TV show is the Fox network’s “Lie to Me“. The show’s main character is Dr. Cal Lightman who’s an expert in spotting lies. In the show, Dr. Lightman can determine if a person is lying simply by talking with them — often just by watching them. He functions like a human lie detector. He bases his determination of their truthfulness based on facial expressions, non-verbals and microexpressions. The premise is that a liar can’t help but reveal the lie by their body language or facial expressions. If you’re a trained observer, you can spot the truth if you know what you’re looking for. The wild part is that the show is based on a real guy — Dr. Paul Ekman — who really does much of what the show describes and in a cool twist comments via the Fox network’s website episode blog.

How does “Lie to Me” connect with fundraising and nonprofit management?

Just like Dr. Lightman, your donors can spot truth. And your organization can’t help but tell people what’s most important to you. You might claim that you’re focused on feeding and caring for orphans in Africa (to use a broad example).  Your mission statement might make the claim that orphans are most important. Everyone in your organization might understand that is what you’re mission is. But is that the “truth” you’re telling your donors?

Look back through your recent fundraising communications. What are you talking about: your organization or orphans? Is it budget or orphans? Do you talk about orphans’ needs or about your organization’s needs? How are you trying to motivate your donors to give? Do you push budgets, buildings and goals? Or do you talk about what it is like to struggle to live without family?

Sometimes when we want to make this point to a client we’ll use a cool little tool called: wordle.

It’s a free tool that let’s you load all sorts of text into the interface and out pops a representation of the frequency of various words in the document. Do you want to know what you’re telling your donors is most important to you? amazing grace wordlePull all the words out of your last 5 or 6 fundraising letters and pop them in Wordle. You’ll see vividly what you’re writing most about. So that we don’t make anyone uncomfortable, here’s a Wordle for the lyrics of Amazing Grace. You can see pretty easily what the song focuses on. It’s a fun and enlightening experience.

So what about your communications with your donors…are telling the “truth” about what is important? What about giving the Wordle test a try? Share what you find with us we’d love to hear what you think.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

5 thoughts on “fundraising: you can’t lie”

  1. Great post (I love that show BTW)!

    I always think an organization is best served by relating its stories – the stories of the clients, the stories of the staff, board and founder, the stories of its donors.

    Told plainly and in their actual words (I never “clean up” grammatical errors), your organization’s stories tell the truth about your work.

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  3. Thanks Pamela,
    Glad to hear that you love the show, too (I’m still in Season 1 so no spoilers!).

    I appreciate your boldness to use the unedited versions of stories. We try to do that as well, but it’s often a struggle because people are afraid that donors need the sanitized versions. Loss of authenticity is the result.

    Thank you for stopping by–great to hear your thinking.

  4. @Jeff–Thank you. We’ve become very interested in the strategic ways to present all sorts of data–Hoots talks a lot about “data visualization”. For anyone interested in the concept we ran this introduction: http:/
    Glad you stopped by Jeff.

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