No Better Time to Raise Funds Than Right After a Plague

blog_pic_2-26-16_squareThis observation was imparted to me by an esteemed art historian, while sitting on a bench in Venice outside a cathedral. (No, I cannot remember which cathedral, other than it was chock full of Titians. But that’s not important.)

His point was that the denizens of medieval Europe were never so inclined to pony up their ducats than in the aftermath of the natural cataclysms that regularly plowed through their lives. The bubonic plague, for instance.

Some of Europe’s great cathedrals rose from the ashes of disaster, many of which were largely publicly funded. What drove this civic generosity? A sense of compassion for those displaced and devastated by the scourge of deadly disease?

Not hardly.

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Nonprofit Fundraising vs Nonprofit Brand: The Great Divide

blog_pic_2-15-16_squareMy first boss, a respected if not legendary direct mail fundraiser in the political arena, once told me that it is far easier to raise money against a perceived evil than it is to raise it for a perceived good.

The recognized emotional “drivers” of effective direct response fundraising copy (attributed to Bob Hacker and Axel Andersson) are fear, greed, guilt, exclusivity, anger, salvation, and flattery. Most good copywriters, especially in fundraising, lean heavily on these emotions to drive response, and strive to place the donor at the center of the appeal.

The notion that donor action is more easily triggered against an evil suggests that, of these drivers, fear, guilt, and anger are frequently more useful tools for fundraisers to stoke the emotional fire in their readers’ hearts. Admittedly this sometimes paints a grim but motivating picture of the challenge.

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The Great Fundraising Mandala

blog_pic_2-3-16_squareThe dynamics of successful direct response fundraising has been described as a three-legged stool: Strategy (analytics) drives Creative (tactics) drives Performance (data), from which Strategy generates analytics. That brings us back to the first leg of the stool.

Remove one leg from the relationship and the stool falls over. Simple.

But there is an inherent weakness in the simplicity of this construct. It leaves out the most integral component, namely the donor. More specific, his or her attitudinal and behavioral fabric.

After all, donors react emotionally and rationally — or not — to the strategically considered, tactically rendered communication sitting before them. That’s the reality behind “Performance,”  and it directly influences the direction of subsequent strategies and tactics.

Perhaps better to visualize the fundraising dynamics as a wheel, or, because of the cyclical, concentric, and interdependent nature of its components, a mandala (to borrow from Eastern philosophies.)

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Slacktivism or Sloppiness?

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There’s a tendency for direct response traditionalists to dismiss the value of social media as a viable fundraising channel. It is clear that social media has an important role to play in mobilizing “movements” (Occupy Wall Street, etc.) but its effectiveness as a fundraising tool is less clear. Hence, “slacktivism: the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.” (Urban Dictionary)

A study by the journal Sociological Science found that only 0.24% of those who signed onto a recent Facebook cause page for aid to Darfur actually contributed money. Worse, 72% never recruited another member, which at first glance should be a strength of social media.

But what creates this phenomenon? Is it the nature of the channel itself, the behavioral characteristics of its primary audience, or simply the sloppiness with which so many social campaigns have been constructed? Surveying a broad range of social fundraising and activism sites, some observations may be drawn:

  1. Low pain/high gratification. In direct mail and email, we know that a low gift ask (low effort, low pain point) generally attracts more, but less loyal, followers. Throw in a premium (high gratification) and the net effect intensifies.

    High pain/low gratification. Conversely, traditionalists know that asking for a higher dollar value and making the donor engage in some kind of involvement action (high effort, high pain point), without public acknowledgement or a premium (low gratification) will certainly result in fewer, but more loyal and retainable donors. In the end, these donors deliver a high revenue pay-off once the cost to acquire them has been recovered.

    A social media campaign that requires simply clicking a support button (low effort, low pain point) in return for the shine one’s social reputation attains with public acknowledgement (high gratification) will get lots of hits, but probably not net a large number of loyal supporters who will stick with the cause, or do more than was asked.

    What if they were asked to do more for less? Don’t like, give. Give not once, but monthly. Send an email to a friend — not a social share, not a like, but a new effort in a new channel. Send a USPS mailing address of a relative who would also give/volunteer/vote. Number of hits would dramatically drop BUT in all likelihood those that engage will evolve into true long-term constituents.

  2. Deliver the story but demonstrate the solution. We know that emotional stories can create appeals that resonate. However, equally important is the demonstration that the donor’s support can translates to a solution.

    Most social media cause sites are strong in emotion, but rarely give time or space to exactly HOW the donor’s action will be used to remedy the problem. Moreover, it is hard to demonstrate why a “like” will solve the problem. Money, on the other hand, or volunteer action, or referral of others who will donate and volunteer, is easy to demonstrate. Unfortunately, so often it is not.

  3. Especially in a noisy environment, brand does not motivate. Direct response fundraisers continually challenge themselves to establish unique selling propositions, even within individual campaigns, and not rely on organizational brand value.

    Social media, including crowdsourcing sites, are crowded and noisy. Yet I see little attempt to differentiate the voices of the appeals themselves. Instead, social media appeals tend to rely on organizational brand and mission to motivate the donor audience to self-select from the many charitable opportunities.

  4. Donor as star. Traditionalists know that the real star of any fundraising appeal is not the organization or its noble mission. In fact, it is not even the hero/victim of the story. The star of an appeal is the donor. It is no easy feat to cast the donor quickly and effectively in the role, regardless of media and channel.

    The immediacy and intimacy of social media should make it a natural tool to leverage this fundraising construct. I see little evidence of it occurring on social and crowdfunding pages.

Is social media inherently weak as a fundraising channel? Do the generations that use them behave differently? Before we dismiss social channels, or toss around glib notions like “slacktivism,” we should be sure we are at least employing the practices that we use in other media.

Technology changes. User practice may even change as a result. Human behavior does not.

Updated from an earlier post.

The Fundraising 6-Pack: Architecture for Direct Response Appeals

blog_pic_1-24-16When writing fundraising appeals we’re often so focused on media, donor segment, communication channel, content, and offer that can we overlook the 6 essential architectural markers on which any effective appeal is built.

Regardless of media, technology, format or market segment, successful appeals usually hit the following 6 markers:

1. ENTER!
Get them in. Envelope teaser, banner head, email subject line…your donors will never respond if they never see your message to begin with. And to do that you have to get their attention.

2. GO!
Start them on their journey in the right direction. There is always a directional flow in great appeals, a clear starting line, heading to a clear finish line. Do your donors know where to start or are there competing elements in your appeal that are dividing their attention and perhaps sending them to an ask before your persuasive content is fully communicated? Pay attention to sequencing, order of insertion in direct mail and intermediate landing pages in digital as the donor journeys from the starting blocks to the finish line.

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