There are two ways these posts about soliciting donors start: Either we begin with a metaphor about how asking a donor for time or money is like a. some sort of romantic proposition (prom, date, marriage), or b. a capital investment someone would make based on a tangible return they will receive based upon said investment. While both are apt comparisons to soliciting donors, they actually represent entirely different ways of asking for money. Further, while neither metaphor is mutually exclusive of the other, they’re often taken as such in the non-profit community.

The truth is, though, the combination of these two strategies is the key to a truly successful fundraising appeal. To illustrate this concept, we must first examine the diametrical opposites they represent through the lens of constituent solicitation.

The emotional appeal:

You’ve seen a type like this before. It’s packed with emotional triggers and leaves you crying or laughing or maybe both. Take the SPCA ad with Sarah McLaughlin for example. Images of abandoned, starving, and abused animals are flashed on the screen as Sarah implores us for a donation which will, we’re to assume, help alleviate the suffering of the animals shown in these gripping images.

Does Sarah tell us how our money will be used or where, exactly, it’s going? She may, but I’ve been too busy sobbing uncontrollably to really pick up on that.

The point is that’s not the focus of the appeal and no one’s pretending otherwise. It’s the pull at the heart strings approach which the metaphor of romantic proposition represents. This strategy is to remind your long time constituents that there is still a need and to grab the attention of new supporters by eliciting a visceral reaction from them.

The investment pitch:

This approach is about impact and numbers. The sensibility that you’re appealing to as an organization is essentially this: “You care about our organization’s cause. We believe that you should give us your time/money/energy because that will directly help our organization achieve tangible outcomes to advance our cause.” Put simply, this frames the ask as an equation: a + b = c.

The focus here is on empirically proven outcomes that you, as an organization, believe that donations will lead to.

There’s a fantastic TED Talk from a few years back given by Toby Eccles on something called the Social Bond. Recently, I was onsite with a client of mine who’s pioneering this experiment on the largest scale in the United States. So far, they’ve had fantastic results.

This organization has a three way agreement with themselves, the state, and  large private investors about how the organization’s work will realize a return on investment for both outside parties. The outside investors work with the state and the organization to determine how much money would be saved if the organization was able to divert people away from costly, tax funded services that the state provides.  If the organization can prove that it’s successfully meeting the results that have been agreed upon, then the state saves money and the outside investors realize a modest profit along with the organization. It’s appeal by simple math: They divert x% of the population away from state services thus saving them x$’s.

Which type of appeal should you use?

Now, these are two entirely different schools of thought. And, if we buy into the idea that these two ideologies are the primary drivers for our donors (they are), then the question of, “how do we effectively create a constituent appeal” becomes immensely more complicated.

Conveniently, these two schools of thought break neatly down by generational demographics:

  • You’re older (50+) and more long term donors tend to respond well to the emotional appeals described above. Commitment, something the romantic metaphor implies, is a pretty strong driver. Older donors generally feel more obligated to continue giving to the organizations that support the causes that they care more about, and they are generally much more trustworthy of the organizations which they’ve historically contributed to. Now, this isn’t to say that the emotional appeal isn’t effective on your younger demographics of constituents as well (like I said, consistently balling to Sarah MacLaughlin over here), but younger generations are far more concerned with impact.
  •  For your younger constituents (50 and under), they generally see their donation as an investment. They want to know that their donation will have impact. If they don’t feel like they’re receiving good return on their investment, they’re gone. Understanding this is the key to asking them for money. A story is fantastic (and, as we’ll see, something that should be coupled with the numbers) but as a group that is generally distrustful of institutions, this type of donor would rather see larger impact to ensure the wool isn’t being pulled over their eyes. One only needs to look at the CNN report from a little over a year ago (http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/13/us/worst-charities/) to find ample evidence of this trust.

No one knows your donors better than you do.

Having an understanding of your supporter base is crucial to the success of your communication and fundraising strategy because, at the end of the day, segmentation is still king.

Solicitation is most successful when it’s catered to the specific engagement preferences of an individual and, since it’s pretty unlikely you can’t make a personal 1 to 1 solicitation to all of your constituents, segmentation helps.

The happy medium:

As a nonprofit organization, you have fantastic stories to share about the work you do. The success of your solicitation can be as simple as connecting supporters to the stories they care most about, and framing them in a way that both plays on their unique sympathies and illustrates your macro level impact on the cause they chose to support. Don’t just tell the story of the need. Tell the story of the need—your cause—and give specific examples of how every dollar donated and hour spent volunteering is investment in the solution.

It’s the fantastic lunch that participants of the Culinary Training program through Lazarus House Ministries serve to all that show up on Tuesdays in downtown Lawrence. It’s the joy and pride you can see on participants faces as they stuff those who show up full of the truly wonderful baked haddock. But it’s also the near 100% placement rate out of the program that’s landed over 50 men and women employment. It’s the bridge that they themselves built to walk out of poverty.

Like most things in life, the key to a successful solicitation isn’t in the black or the white. It’s in the shades between.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marshall Simmonds is an Account Manager at Blackbaud who works with clients in New England. He’s passionate about working with Blackbaud’s clients to solve their complex business issues through better leveraging technology to grow their missions. When he’s not working with nonprofits he’s busy as a hapless Detroit sports fan.

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