Creative Hack #1: Set Completion

Blogpic_4-6-16 Imagine sitting down at your desk one Monday morning and finding an untouched Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle waiting for you. A deadline looms. Although you have no time or intention to muddle through it, you do notice one clue for a 3-letter word: “NFL star Manning.”

But it’s a busy day and you feel no compulsion to attack the puzzle, so you simply smile, set the puzzle aside and move on with your day, without bothering to fill in the easy answer with “Eli.”

Now imagine the same scenario, but this time the entire puzzle has been completed—every answer to every clue —EXCEPT the 3-letter answer for “NFL Star Manning.”

If you feel compelled to pick up a pencil and complete the puzzle in this situation, despite the looming deadline, you have taken a very human action that human behavior scientists refer to as set completion.

“Finishing tasks that are incomplete gives us all a huge sense of satisfaction,” says Dr. Kiki Koutmeridou, Behavioral Science Strategist for DonorVoice. “Framing items as parts of a whole unit elicits a desire for completion and encourages effort and motivation, even in the absence of external rewards.”

Continue reading

It’s Time to Discard Emotional v. Rational

BlogPic_16-1-10For decades, the fundraising community has accepted the notion that the act of giving is an emotional behavior. Without doubt, there is solid scientific ground on which to build this foundational belief.

Fundraising campaigns are built around this assumption: “We have a serious problem we are trying to solve, and we believe we can move you to help us to solve it.”

And often the persuasion behind that emotional urge to give — the argument for giving to a specific organization, for instance — contains a very rational assumption: “Your gift to us represents your best investment for finding a solution.”

This duality inspires endless argument. What approach should we take when we speak to our donors in this campaign? Emotional or Rational? How much of each?

Accepting this notion at face value, however, is risky.

The Fundamental Error

Strategic fundraising campaigns run on the rails of an offer, driven by a singular case for giving. Often, fundraisers use the emotional/rational yardstick to create the messaging and positioning around the offer. But differentiating fundraising offers as emotional versus rational suggests that they exist in opposition to each other.

This, of course, is fundamentally illogical.

The opposite of emotional is unemotional. The opposite of rational is irrational.

Continue reading

7 (Re)Marks of the Amateur, Made by Professionals

There are many innocent assumptions that folks outside the nonprofit fundraising community might make about fundraising that become egregious mistakes when made by direct response fundraising professionals.

What is surprising is how often the pros make them. Here are just a few that make me wince:

  1. “This appeal doesn’t come from the events side, it comes from the development side. It’s a completely different thing.”
    Think donors bother differentiating among voices, messages and offers coming from a single organization? Think again. It’s one organization, with one persona.
  2. “I would hate to get this in the mail.”
    Unless you are the precise statistical equivalent of the typical donor, your personal tastes and reactions are irrelevant.
  3. “The first mailing explained the program. The follow-up doesn’t have to.”
    This assumes the first effort was even read, much less absorbed and retained. To paraphrase Dale Carnegie: Tell them what you are going to ask them. Then ask them. Then tell them what you asked them. From component to component and campaign to campaign.
  4. “It doesn’t matter that all the variables are different. It’s a creative test.”
    So then, what will we learn if it is a success? Or a failure, for that matter? Although throwing entirely new creative treatments into a test mix may be tempting, some variables in the campaign must be controlled to understand what happened. Segment, offer, signer, ask? They can’t all be variable.
  5. Our average donor is a 70 years old and female. She doesn’t use (the computer) (email) (the internet) (a smart phone).” Don’t mistake unwillingness to provide credit card information online with proficiency in the digital world. Statistics confirm that seniors do engage in digital technology and communication.  Digital media may occupy different places in their lives, however.
  6. “Direct mail is a dying medium.”
    The role of direct mail is a changing, no doubt. But for the time being it still carries the disproportionate load of charitable transactions, and will continue to do so, albeit on a decreasing slope, until the youngest segments of Boomers (now in their late 40s) enter their prime giving years (60-80). See the excellent infographic from Blackbaud.
  7. “You can’t raise money with social media, so don’t bother testing.”
    It’s true, currently, that social media has not met with much real fundraising success. At least no one has yet to figure it out. But that could be because the population of social users for whom social media is most relevant is also the population with the least current means and propensity to give — donors under the age of 40. Wait until they accrue some wealth, raise their kids, and become able to start giving regularly. In the meantime, social is still an effective communication and engagement medium. Bottom line: we need to keep testing.

What have you heard within the industry that makes you wince just a little bit?

Nonprofit Brand vs. Nonprofit Fundraising

There is ongoing angst among fundraising professionals about the intrusion of brand constraints into fundraising campaigns. Stories abound of slick, ad agency-produced PSAs that are long on pizzazz but short on donor respect, clear calls-to-action, and a compelling reason to give.

Jeff Brooks, at his excellent Future Fundraising Now blog, regularly and amusingly documents the dubious creations of brand directors run amok in fundraising campaigns.

It shouldn’t be this way. If an organization’s brand promise is strong and unambiguous (think Operation Smile, St Judes Children’s Hospital, Wounded Warrior Project, American Cancer Society), then the brand, by extension, should be a powerful shorthand for all the nuance, emotion and impact of a philanthropic mission.

But there’s a difference between mission and the “product” that we fundraisers sell. Our product is NOT the organizational mission. It’s the warm fuzzy intangible a donor feels when she takes action that changes the world for the better.

In the commercial world, there should be little difference between brand promise and product satisfaction. When the brand over-promises and product under-delivers, consumers immediately speak with their wallets, profits plummet, and brand strategies are instantly revised.

The problem in our world? Too often many nonprofit brand czars conflate a nonprofit’s brand with the tactical messages of fundraising. They misunderstand that the fundraising product (aforementioned warm fuzzy for the donor) is not the organizational mission (improving the world).

Therefore, they rail against the tone and implication of fundraising appeals if they see them diverging from their brand vision of mission. “We sell hope, not hopelessness, we sell healing, not disease, we sell redemption, not despair,” they argue.

My first boss, Richard Viguerie, used to say that it’s much harder to raise money FOR something (hope, healing, redemption) than it is to raise money AGAINST something (hopelessness, disease, despair). Being constrained by brand police from describing the evil that missions address makes it much harder to sell the good they hope to achieve.

The result? Brand-compliant appeals, devoid of focus, emotional drivers, and compelling imagery, which depend on tired techniques (freemiums, involvement devices, quasi-deceptive envelope lures, etc.) to remain effective. The same-old same-old. (see Roger Craver’s thoughts at The Agitator for a discussion of the dangers of “best practice.”)

All is not lost. There are plenty of competent fundraisers and nonprofit brand managers who understand the difference between fundraising product and mission awareness, and recognize that the best brands and fundraising solutions support each other.


From the DMA Nonprofit Conference in DC

The DMA Nonprofit Conference in Washington, DC is over and, as usual, it left me with plenty to think about. Also as usual, there was One Cool Thing. (There always seems to be One Cool Thing that one takes from these shows.)

Humane Society International acquires sustaining monthly donors using an ingenious online “slider” that enables donors to slide the bar to their preferred giving level while progressively freeing a line of animals from cages.


This is a brilliant involvement technique, that immediately and visually links the donor, and her gift, to mission.