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Is Lack of Emotion Hurting Your Fundraising?

December 15, 2015

Mr.-SpockHave you ever wondered, after the fact, why you donated to a particular cause or organization? You hadn't planned on it. It wasn't something that had been on your radar. So why did you give?

The answer, in a lot of cases, is because it made you feel good. That's how most of us feel when we do something to help others. It's a feeling that has been well documented in studies and, recently, by the New York Times.

As a fundraising consultant, I'm often asked by nonprofit leaders how to raise money for causes or organizations that aren't perceived to be urgent or especially compelling? "We aren't curing cancer here, and we don't have any cute dogs to show people."

What I tell them is to go back to the real reasons people give. As I've said elsewhere, donors usually can be categorized as either emotional/"thoughtless" givers or "thoughtful" givers.

The key question, in many cases, is whether you've set yourself up for fundraising failure by inadvertently removing the emotion from your brand identity? Here are four mistakes organizations often make that can rob their brand of emotion and hobble their fundraising:

1. Mistakenly assume that every person is an expert. This is one of the most common mistakes made by nonprofit marketers and fundraisers – and the one that can do the most damage to your emotion-driven fundraising strategies. When promoting a cause to the public, be careful not to elevate the language, tone, and spirit of your messaging to the point the "ask" gets lost or pushed to the background. Donors like simple stories told well and are always eager to hear how their donations will benefit someone (or something) else.

2. Ignore the emotional appeal of their brand. It's always interesting when the strategists in charge of a high-profile brand decide to "evolve" it from ultra-corporate and unemotional to informal and emotion-centered. In an effort to connect with consumers, brands such as Old Spice, Dominos, Dos Equis, and IBM all have refashioned their advertising and brand messaging so as to appear more "human." Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for marketing agencies that work with nonprofits to ignore the fact that emotion is an absolutely essential component of any nonprofit brand. Branding that favors graphics over pictures of real people, polished video over real or raw footage, and designs that are "cool" rather than "hot" all tend to rob a brand of much-needed emotion – and will drag down your fundraising results.

3. Put too much emphasis on the "investment." Recently, I met with a fundraising professional who told me her organization always asks donors to "invest" in the organization rather than give to the cause because, she said, it's what her donors want. The researcher in me was quick to point out that, unless she has data to back it up, she was making an assumption. Some donors may in fact think of their gift as an investment in your organization (especially major donors who give "thoughtfully"), but the vast majority of donors are more likely to donate in order to help a person or persons whose story you have shared with them.

I want to be clear: a pitch that includes the idea of making an investment is a great way to approach institutional funders and sophisticated individual philanthropists. But for most people, wanting to make a difference in a person's life or connecting with a cause that resonates with their passion is where it's at.

4. Tries to sell an idea instead of impact. Have you ever wondered how a particular organization creates impact? If the answer to that question is yes, it may be because the organization is selling an idea instead of the difference it is making in other people's lives. This is an important concept. Teaching people about an issue is not the same as appealing to their emotions. Ideas and abstract concepts do not evoke the human face of giving and tend to be less fruitful, from a fundraising perspective, than selling the actual impact an organization creates. If your work centers around a concept (think keeping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below four hundred parts per million), do not let it overshadow how individuals are affected by the concept. Populating the conceptual framework with stories of individuals is critical.

Headshot_derrick_feldmann_newAs a fundraising professional, it's important that you don't let your own biases get in the way of the natural tendency of donors to want to help. At the end of the day, people give because they are human. And humans, uniquely, are able to see the impact that they, through their generosity, can have on others. If you understand that, real change and positive fundraising results will follow.

Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and creative agency that works with nonprofits to increase their impact, and co-author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, to be published in February by Wiley.

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