Adding Fairness to Your Appeal

| by Leslie Starsoneck

I love a quiet Sunday morning with coffee, a lazy cat, and the Sunday New York Times.  During the week I get my news like most people these days, I scan headlines and articles from many of my favorite online sites.  On Sunday I take time, fold back pages, and dig in to articles that may have been discarded with a keystroke on a weekday.  On November 6th I spent my time with NYT special section called Giving, full of great articles and advice for those working or interested in the nonprofit space. 

Among the offerings was an article on West Coast tech philanthropists and their inclination towards high-risk, high-reward charitable projects.  Another highlighted the ways millennials think about philanthropy (they want meaning).  My favorite article was about using the right words in fundraising appeals.  Highlighting research by Dr. Jennifer Shang, the article focused on what motivates people to give.  Dr. Shang offered a set of moral adjectives– fair, kind, compassionate, helpful, caring, friendly, generous, honest, and hard-working – that describe a “core sense of who people actually are, as well as who they would ideally like to be.” 

Dr. Shang emphasizes that simply using these adjectives in fundraising letters misses the point.  Tapping into donor motivation and describing the donor (not the organization) as kind, fair, compassionate, hard-working – is what works.  What an interesting but challenging shift for organizations to use adjectives to describe their donors rather than their organizations. 

The article cites an example of a highly successful fundraising appeal letter sent to former patients by a hospital VP.  Leading with the principle of reciprocity (Dr. Shang’s “fairness” adjective) – you trusted us with your care, we treated you well, and now we need your financial support – the letter resulted in 35,000 patients over ten years donating between $1 and $20,000.

The fairness example used by the article will prove more difficult for many because it sets up an expectation that many organizations are uncomfortable with: soliciting former consumers of their services for charitable gifts.  Why?  Some do not want to suggest that clients “owe them something” especially if the services rendered were free.  It feels unethical.  For others, it doesn’t occur to them that this group of people has the potential to give.   I say challenge your thinking there as well.  Many people want to give back. 

So grab some coffee, find a quiet place, and draft an appeal that focuses on who your donors are or want to be.  See what ends up on the page. 

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