How is your organization talking to potential donors? If you run a nonprofit, you should already have an answer to this. Your communication style with each potential partner is crucial. This includes how you are reaching out to them, what kind of stories you are telling, and the wording you are using. If your message is not geared toward a modern donor mindset, you could be missing out.
Think about emails or letters you receive from other nonprofits asking for donations? Which ones are so predictable you throw them away? Which ones grab your attention? What has motivated you to donate? At Keenly Interactive we have been studying the mindset of the modern donor and have recently noticed two important trends.
Sad Stories Don’t Work
Donor psychology has dramatically changed over the years. One of the major changes? Individuals are less responsive to sad stories.
It reminds me of an antibiotic. Research tells us that if we get sick and use the same antibiotic month after month, our body will build a resistance against it and it will become less effective at fighting illness. You can take the exact same medicine that used to work perfectly, but suddenly it does nothing. The medical community calls this an “antibiotic resistance”, and it reminds me of what I’ve seen with what works for growing donations. I would call it “sad story resistance”.
Over the years, nonprofits learned that a sad story or scary statistic would draw in donations in the short term. Each nonprofit wrote out their sad story was and would share it in more of their marketing pieces: teen pregnancy rates, homelessness, third world poverty, or the reality of addiction. While it was effective, the motivation to donate was “how much do I have to give to make this feeling go away.” On top of that, we’ve also seen such a flood of these sad stories online. You can find a new “Go Fund Me” everyday to support a sick friend of a friend, or a video of the effects of a natural disaster. I’m not suggesting that these people don’t need help. I’m suggesting that it’s not hard to find a sad story, and as such, they don’t command attention.
The quick takeaway? Don’t focus so much on the need; focus on what you’re doing about it, and what will change if the donor chooses to help you.
Donors Relate More Easily to Other Donors
One of the reasons that donors respond poorly to sad stories over the long term is that unless they have a specific experience, they have difficulty empathizing with the person in the photo. Their life is just too different. As a byproduct of our western culture, individuals are far more likely to empathize with people like themselves or to try to mimic people that they want to be associated with. Many organizations understand this and communicate around the character of the donor themselves. Instead of sharing the great need, what if you talked about what it means to be a donor? Can you describe the type of person who would donate to your ministry? Talk about how donors are improving the lives of your clients, or even share a story from a donor themselves.
TV shows who have a full ensemble cast are successful because there are so many different characters to relate to. Take Friends for example- every watcher tunes in because on some level they relate to one of those characters, even if it’s Gunther. It’s called an avatar, or a story anchor. My condolences if you’re a Ross. The ensemble cast taps into our natural desire to relate. In the same way, how can you tell stories of donors that others can relate to?
If you run a ministry that helps children in Africa and show pictures of those families suffering, it will be hard for a potential donor to relate to not having clean drinking water. They’re not selfish jerks; they simply have no frame of reference for that experience. Instead of trying to cross that gap, offer an experience that’s more relatable. Highlight an existing donor saying “These families didn’t have access to clean water and now they have water. They are improving their lives and starting a business and it feels amazing to be a part of this work.” Your potential new donors can’t empathize with the Africans depicted, but they can empathize with the donor and say to themselves “I can do that. I want to be someone who brings clean water to those that need it.” The modern donor mindset will be far more responsive to this message.
If what I just said sounds harsh or selfish, I don’t know what to tell you. I have to take the facts as they are, and I want to see maximum good done in the world. The facts tell me that people are relatively immune to sad stories, but find it easier to relate to the idea of themselves as donor heroes. This information is invaluable if you plan to transform your fundraising efforts from a string of appeal letters into a community of engaged donors who also recruit others. It’s worth the work.