Over the past century or so, the practice of fundraising has developed its own processes, tools, and best practices. Not surprisingly, it has also developed its own set of widely-held myths — cherished beliefs that often get in the way of fundraising success.
In a previous post, I shared a few of these myths, along with the views of several fundraising experts I asked to weigh in with their own perspectives. In this post, I’ll do the same with three more fundraising myths.
Myth # 4. Let’s talk about hope, because that will really inspire people to give.
Claire Axelrad, of Clairification, is more than a little skeptical about this statement. “Giving to ‘restore hope’ sounds nice and feel good,” she says, “but it’s nebulous. Hope is an abstract concept that won’t get to your donor’s gut.”
Claire illustrates her point by observing, “You’ll never see a homeless person with a placard that says, ‘Give me hope.’” Why? In part, because it doesn’t work very well. Much more inspiring, she notes, are messages like, “My baby needs milk,” or “Lost job. Can’t feed my 2 kids.” When a prospective donor is confronted with a black-and-white proposition — help or don’t help — there’s nothing vague about the ask, and the donor can clearly visualize the cure. “Children eating,” she observes, “is clearer than children hoping. And not giving means allowing kids to go hungry. That’s perceived by the donor as a concrete loss.”
Claire adds, however, that “There is a way to turn the ‘hope’ equation around to inspire donors. Get inside their heads and think about the hope they don’t want to lose. Generally, what donors stand to lose is the hope their gift will make a meaningful impact.” She believes that one of the best ways to address this fear is by clearly demonstrating how the sense of hopelessness can be avoided — if they give. “Hope is a powerful emotion – if you can make the donor feel it. Don’t talk about hope in the abstract.” (To read more of Claire’s insights about hope, fear, and fundraising, check out her post on the topic.)
Claire also believes that people will often give more to organizations that show them the pain that can be avoided through their gift, rather than to organizations that emphasize only the good that can be gained. “Donors want to know the specific impact of their gift,” Claire explains. “So don’t tell me it’s going to ‘restore hope.’ It’s unclear what ‘hope’ costs, or even what it accomplishes. It’s clear what food costs, and what it will enable a person to do.”
Myth # 5. We need to use statistics to show how big our problem is.
Tom Ahern, author of several books and a copywriting guru in the fields of fundraising and communications, believes in using stories, not statistics, to demonstrate the problem.
Tom explains, “Storytelling produces oxytocin. Statistics don't.” In case the term is new to you, oxytocin is a neurochemical that motivates us to cooperate, and research has shown found that character-driven stories consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. “Further,” Tom notes, “the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others."
Tom adds, “The whole ‘statistics vs. stories’ debate is kind of pointless anyway. And yet it's harder to kill than an urban legend. The average person assumes: ‘Some people like stories. Some people like numbers.’ So they may conclude that using stories or statistics have roughly the same effect.” However, he observes, when you're talking to individual donors, stories have far greater impact.
More correctly, he says, this widely-held belief should be restated: "All individual donors like stories (based on the feel-good neurochemistry involved), and a few individual donors can appreciate numbers as well." He also shared this pithy and memorable comparison:
Stories sell. Statistics tell.
Stories are for everyone. Statistics are for specialists.
Stories need no translation. Statistics do.
Myth # 6. We need to focus our appeal on all the great things our organization does.
If you have read even one book, listened to one webinar or attended one conference on fundraising, you already know that this is a major myth. Making your organization the focus of your appeal message is not a good idea. Talking about your effective processes or amazing accomplishments is definitely boring (and possibly irritating as well) to potential donors.
But don’t just take my word for it. This Fundraising 101 mythbuster is right out of Jeff Brook’s book, How to Turn Your Words Into Money. Jeff says, “Donors don’t give to you because you’re excellent. They give because they are. Your work aids their excellence — you’re the channel through which they change the world.”
It’s easy to see why focusing on your organization is the natural thing to do. When you sit down to write your appeal, you want the donor to know how you have been solving problems and making a difference. In short, you can get carried away talking about your organization. But all the donor hears is, “blah, blah, blah.”
Instead, donors want to hear the story and understand the issues. Donors are interested in sharing in your mission. They are moved by emotion and feel compelled to act. They want to make a difference — but honestly could not care less about the great things your organization does.
Assumptions that are worth a second look
It can be a little unsettling to rethink some of your most basic assumptions about fundraising. But it can also be a liberating step forward, and a great way to increase the impact of your fundraising appeals. Taking a fresh approach to creating your appeals may feel like a challenge at first, but try to embrace it — because doing so can also open to the door to new approaches and far greater results.
Discover three other fundraising myths to avoid in Part 1
Many thanks to these experts for their insights:
Claire Axelrad of Clairification
Tom Ahern of Ahern Donor Communications
Jeff Brook of Jeff Brooks Fundraising