I feel manipulated!

I wake up on Sunday mornings, brew a pot of coffee and tune into my favorite Sunday morning news shows like The Chris Matthews Show and Meet the Press. However, this last Sunday morning I woke up to a parade of coverage focusing exclusively on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. So, I sat on my couch all morning, sipping coffee and fought back the tears and horrible memories.

Like most Americans, I have vivid memories of those difficult days. I can tell you exactly where I was when the first news broke. I can give you a blow-by-blow accounting of my day. I couldn’t stop watching the news coverage in the weeks after Sept. 11th, and those videos of the planes crashing into the towers and people wandering around the New York streets with pictures of their fallen loved ones are just haunting. In fact, I am getting teary right now typing about it, and I have goosebumps on my arms. UGH!

So, as I watched television on Sunday morning, I found myself getting angry whenever a network would cut away from their coverage and some company’s commercial exploited 9-11  as an opportunity to sell their product. They masterfully pulled at my heart-strings and tapped into raw emotions all in the name of consumerism. Check out this Budweiser commercial to see what I mean.

Unfortunately, the beer company wasn’t the only ones doing it. Stephen Colbert did a nice job nailing a number of these culprits. Click here to check-out his comedic report.

You might be asking right about now: “What does this have anything to do with non-profit organizations, fundraising or donors?”

As I processed my thoughts and feelings in the wake of Sunday’s emotional coverage, I came to two very strong conclusions.

  1. This kind of marketing is manipulative, feels really yucky and makes me not want to buy those products.
  2. Non-profit organizations sometimes do the same kind of thing.

What?!?! Huh?!?! Where did THAT come from?

Come on! You know what I mean:

  • Please sir . . . won’t you please make a contribution? Without YOUR support we will have to close our doors and throw those kids out onto the street.
  • Please ma’am . . . for just the cost of that “Triple Venti Skinny Cinnamon Dulce Latte” you can feed a village of starving people for a day.”
  • Please make a donation today to remember the 9-11 victims, which will allow our organization to invest in a “get out the vote” effort. (This really was a fundraising pitch. Don’t believe me? Click here!)

I know, I know . . . appealing to people’s emotions is very effective and is considered a best practice for all good fundraising and marketing campaigns. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am NOT saying that we need to strip the emotion out of our messaging, but I am saying that we need to be very careful about not crossing that line and using FEAR to motivate donors.

Knowing where that emotional line is can be difficult and different when deal with individual donors. For example, my partner detests the fundraising commercials for the ASPCA, and he swears that he will never give to that charity because he feels manipulated by them.

So, how can you and your agency know where that line is? While it is a tough question that probably doesn’t have a good answer, you better figure it out if you’re committed to a donor-centered fundraising paradigm.

The one suggestion I can offer is . . .  get your donors engaged in the process. Before sending out an emotional mail appeal (or for that matter any piece aimed at cultivation, solicitation or stewardship), what would be so wrong will convening a donor focus group to review the package and provide feedback?

What are your thoughts? What does your organization do to minimize the possibility of tripping over your donors’ emotional-point-of-no-return? What is the most manipulative thing you’ve ever seen a non-profit organization do? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts because we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

Colbert SuperPac: Not a fundraiser’s alterative universe

On June 30th, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) voted to approve Stephen Colbert’s (a comedian and host of the Comedy Central Colbert Report) application to form what is called a “SuperPac”. According to NPR and other various report, Colbert left the hearing room, went outside to a throng of supporters, and started accepting people’s credit cards. He used a credit card swipe machine attached to an iPad to process contributions from enthusiastic supporters.

In the wake of the ruling, Colbert launched his Colbert SuperPac website, started taking online contributions, and now scrolls the names of his donors along the bottom of the television screen during his shows.

Over the last month, I’ve watched this fundraising drama unfold and found myself wondering: “Is this some kind of bizarro, alternative fundraising universe?

What I thought I was seeing was average people pulling out their wallets and throwing money at an organization that didn’t have a mission, vision, or case for support. Go to the Colbert SuperPac website, click around and try to find any of that information. It doesn’t really exist. What does this organization stand for? What will this organization support? How will it support those things it believes in?

You will find no answers. As a matter of fact, Colbert interviewed political analyst Matthew Dowd on his show about this very subject, and in the end he concluded that he would ask his donors what his SuperPac should symbolize and support. As a non-profit fundraising professional, it took me a long time to wrap my mind around the idea of going to a donor, asking for a contribution, and then asking the donor what they think your mission, vision, case for support, and programming should be.

My Dad has said I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer; however, after many walks and conversations with my dog, I have come to the conclusion that this is NOT a bizarro, alternative universe for fundraising professions.

There is a very witty and satirical case for support that Colbert’s super-smart audience understands. It isn’t written in a case for support document or a glossy solicitation brochure. The SuperPac’s case for support is embodied in a series of “comedy bits” that Colbert has been airing ever since the Supreme Court’s controversial “Citizens United” decision in 2010.

In a nutshell, the Colbert SuperPac’s case goes something like this: “Making a contribution to this undefined political action committee will allow us to demonstrate to the FEC, policymakers, and the Supreme Court that there are dangers and unforeseen consequences of such a decision. Your contribution also helps test a hypothesis that unlimited ‘free speech’ can have adverse consequences on democratic institutions. In the end, your contribution might even save our American democracy.”

Now THAT is an amazing case for support, which must be why so many people are lining up to give Colbert SuperPac their money.

OK … now that I’ve convinced myself that the fundraising universe hasn’t been turned upside down, I see all sorts of fundraising lessons for non-profit organizations and fundraising professions such as:

  • Your organization’s case for support needs to be POWERFUL if you want to be serious about raising money.
  • Your fundraising efforts will benefit greatly if you find the right voice to talk about your case for support.
  • People will contribute only if you ask them. So, stop beating around the bush and dropping hints.
  • Allowing donors to swipe their credit card will help inspire spontaneous giving.
  • Taking contributions online via your website needs to be supported by multi-channel cultivation, solicitation and stewardship activities.

Well, you’ve been watching the same things I’ve been watching . . . what are your observations? What fundraising best practices are you seeing? Is there a moral to the story for fundraising professionals? Please use the comment box to share your thoughts because we can all learn from each other!

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

What are you saying?

Last night I was watching Comedy Central before bedtime and caught an interview between Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.  It was obvious that Norquist made an appearance on The Colbert Report because he wants to “cultivate” new Millennial generation voters and educate them about his anti-tax message.

Unfortunately for poor Grover, his time was not well spent because when all was said and done the only thing he essentially accomplished was to 1) explain his anti-tax pledge and 2) demonstrate how much he hates taxes. He never got around to telling the young Millennial audience WHY an anti-tax position is important to their generation. I was left wondering what is the case for support?

This got me thinking about many recent conversations I’ve had with non-profit friends. We’ve focused too much on the “how to” communicate with prospects & donors as well as the “how often” to do it. Unfortunately, I think we’re missing the boat (like Grover did last night) by not talking about WHAT should we say to our prospects and donors.

In today’s day and age of non-profit competitiveness, it is not good enough to:

  • send out a gift acknowledgement letter that just says “thank you”
  • mail a quarterly newsletter to donors
  • e-blast informational emails
  • call donors with appreciation
  • host a recognition event
  • get the newspaper to print your press releases
  • set-up and use Facebook pages and Twitter accounts

This laundry list is important, but even more important is what your messaging will be once your secure and use these communication vehicles. Here are a few suggestions to help you fine tune your messaging:

  • Go back and re-read everything you’ve used in the last 3-months.
  • Assess the messaging with a critical eye. Ask yourself if there is a fine tuned message focused on what you do, why you do it, and where are you doing it, and why is it urgent and critical for the community. (If all you hear is “blah-blah-blah,” then you have some work to do.)
  • Pull together a focus group of donors and ask them what messages they hear and what do they want to hear.
  • Dust off your organization’s “case for support” document. Re-read, assess, test, and re-write based on what you hear from others.

Tom Ahern put it best in his most recent e-newsletter when he said: “Our job as donor communicators, I am now convinced by experience and research, is to bring JOY to the donor’s door.”

Has your donor communications brought joy to your donors? Have you asked them? Or are you just grabbing the megaphone and yelling as loudly as you can “we need more money”? Please go to the comment section of this blog and weigh-in on your organization’s communications best practices and how you know they are effective. Let’s learn from each other!

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC