Want some action? Use emotion.

Without emotion, we can't make decisions.

Does a crying baby trip your triggers?Without emotion, we can’t make decisions.

I just had a wonderful week’s vacation. I did a lot of reading for fun. Lots of spacey, sci-fi stuff. (I love to go far, far away… either in time or space). In one novel I read (2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson) a phrase stopped me cold. I had to dog-ear the page.

Reason can’t work without emotion. People cut off from their emotions can’t decide.

So, ok, this is fiction. But some real-world research backs it up.

An article in the MIT Technology Review is an interview with neuroscientist Antonio Demasio. He found that “consciousness… emerges from emotions and feelings.”

Demasio studied patients with brain lesions that made them unable to experience emotions. Though they had no other impairment, he found they were unable to make good decisions.

Emotions begin with basic physiological changes, like our heart rate or facial expressions. Then the brain picks up on these changes and, based on learned associations, interprets them as emotions. We associate these emotions with their triggers and with the outcomes of our past decisions. You’ve experienced this yourself, when faced with a choice that to your head seems right – but your gut screams “NO!”.

As fundraisers, we know to focus on emotions when trying to reach donors and prospective donors. It’s easy to think marshalling a list of logical reasons to give would be most persuasive. We know that’s not the case. Emotions rule.

Here’s what really struck me. Emotions are not just the better way to move people to action. Without emotion, we find it hard to act at all.

So if your goal is to move people to action, then you’d better work at triggering emotions. You’ll need to reach people in their guts before they’ll reach into their wallets.

Trade Secrets

TRADE SECRET?Did you see the recent articles about the Red Cross and their claim of fundraising “trade secrets”?

You can read about it here and here. It concerns questions about how they spent the money raised for relief after hurricane Sandy. The Red Cross is reluctant to hand over information about their fundraising and spending, citing “trade secrets” in its fundraising.

Lots to chew on there, but one aspect struck me.

Do we have – or want – trade secrets in fundraising?

Is the pie limited? Are we really in fierce competition with every other nonprofit for scarce donor dollars? Or could we all learn more from each other – and translate that into better communicating our specific missions?



I opt for learning and generosity. It’s what I’ve experienced. That doesn’t mean I would have shared my donor list with you. But I would have been happy to share how I succeeded at something and why.

And as I did, I’d only be sharing what was already shared with me.

For example: Jerry Huntsinger doesn’t have a clue who I am. But he taught me to write copy. Then he handed over his fabulous newsletter (print, even!) to Mal Warwick, and my lessons continued. Through the years, I’ve been devouring the smarts of people like Tom Ahern, Jeff Brooks and Lisa Sargent. And SOFII? Who doesn’t love them? Generous teachers, all.

I’ve learned from colleagues. And from great co-workers and smart board members and donors.

We share at conferences, in workshops. And now, with the internet, we all have access to a fire hose of information. People give so generously – their successes and their mistakes. Everything is a learning experience. We all want to learn and we all have something to teach. Isn’t generosity at the heart of what we do?

As a consultant, you might think what I’m offering is my knowledge. (Emphasis on the “my”). But that would be so much malarky. It’s not mine. It’s what I’ve learned through experience, yes. But it’s also what other people have shared from their experience. I can contribute my unique mix of learning and my personality. But I don’t claim to own the knowledge.

We have an obligation to donors to learn and to share that information. Donors don’t give to the organizations with the best tricks. They give to the organizations that fit their priorities and move their hearts. And there are enough donors – and enough big hearts – out there for all of us to succeed.

Are you making these mistakes?

As I begin consulting full-time, I’ve been talking to some smaller nonprofits. To prepare for these meetings, I try to get a sense of how they’re fundraising now.

I’m seeing similar problems in different organizations. But here’s the surprising thing − I see these same problems in my mailbox every day, from national and international charities. So these aren’t only small organization problems. I’ll bet we’ve all made some of these mistakes at some point.

1. Thinking it’s all about youfile000321093881

You know how new parents are, right? They need to share every last thing their new baby does. There has never been any baby born who is quite this amazing. You’re happy for them, but their baby is never going to be as fascinating to you as she is to them. It’s a bit like that for many when it comes to their organization. And I want you to feel that way. But that’s not how to persuade people to support you. It’s not about your organization at all. Your purpose is to connect donors with what they think is important. Show them how you do that. Talk about their needs and hopes. Make it about them.

2. Using “we need money” as your case for support

You know and I know you always need more money. But that’s not a compelling reason to give you money. See number one, above. Tell me what’s in it for me. What can I accomplish? What happens if I give you money? Be as specific as you can.

3. Ignoring your donors until you need money

There’s no better way to show your donors you only care about their wallets. When they choose to support you, they become your partners. Treat them that way. Keep them up to date. Share your successes and yes, even your failures. Bring them inside.

JMM_05524. Making every communication about money

You always want to offer donors a way to donate. But you don’t have to focus on the money. See number 3. Talk about what they make possible, not how much you need to raise. Share stories. Say thank you – more than once.

5. Not asking for help

“We need money” isn’t a good proposition. But it’s also not really an ask. You’re hoping donors will connect those dots. You’re making them work for it – and why should they? Learn how to ask, clearly. Make it easy to give. Connect your ask to what their gift will do. Remember, it’s about them, not you. If they don’t feel needed, guess what? They won’t give.

SOS6. Dazzling them with numbers

You might have really pretty stats. I mean, big, impressive numbers. They might make your heart sing and your finance director’s eyes light up. But donors aren’t swayed by numbers. It’s the way our brains work. Numbers? Our eyes glaze over. Stories, though? Stories about one someone who needs their help? Stories we remember. Stories mean something. So absolutely, find a place to offer your numbers. Transparency matters. But don’t expect numbers to do the heavy lifting.

7. Disappearing after the gift

Did you see Mark Phillips’ or Pamela Grow’s posts on legacy gifts gone wrong? We’ve all heard too many stories about donors being treated badly. And I’m sure you’re not doing that, right? But if you dutifully send out that thank you right away and then decide not to “bother” those donors for a year? You’re ignoring them, too. Your choice might come from good intentions, but the result is the same. (Exception: if the donor has asked you not to communicate more than once a year, then you do as you’ve been asked.)

shoes on sidewalk


The good news is all of these things are pretty easy to fix. You just have to realize you need to fix them!

Are you faking it?

Success Starts Here



Every day I’m fortunate to interact with talented people from all over the world. (Thank you, interwebz).

One common thread too many of us share: a sense that perhaps we’re not quite good enough. Self-deprecation can oil social connections – but it also costs each of us something important. I’m shocked all over again when I talk to someone I admire and learn she doesn’t think herself as impressive as I do. And I laugh and say: “We need a support group to keep building each other up! Because you’re amazing, even if you don’t think so”.

Imposter Syndrome

Have you heard about imposter syndrome? Lately I’ve been thinking about it often.

Psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, first identified the problem. It happens when successful people can’t accept their own success. They credit luck, not talent or hard work. And they live in fear of being found out.

It seems this happens more often with women. According to an article in The Guardian, imposter syndrome – not family demands – may be the driver when successful women opt for less ambitious goals. Too often, smart, talented people aren’t sharing those gifts fully – because they’re certain they don’t have much to offer. And because they’re desperately afraid to be found out as frauds.

Does this sound at all familiar to you?

It struck me that my own hesitation ends up being selfish. Because I downplay my own experience and skills, I share less of it with others. That doesn’t only affect my own career – it can impact the organizations I work with. And that’s not a good thing!

So, what to do?

Much of what I’ve read suggests mentors can be helpful. (Although, sometimes high-powered female mentors only increased the imposter anxiety in their mentees.)

Margie Warrell, in a Forbes article, suggests the following:

  • Don’t focus on perfection. Look at the value you bring. Your best doesn’t have to be THE best.
  • Take credit for your own achievements. They didn’t happen by chance.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other people. That comparison is “an act of violence against oneself” according to author Iyanla Vanzant.
  • Be brave. Risk that exposure.

Look, learning begins with mistakes. If we don’t allow ourselves to make them, how do we learn? And if you raise money for a nonprofit, you know that you MUST take chances. You have to test, all the time, to succeed. For a nonprofit, standing still is usually another way to describe a slow death. Grow or die.

Being aware of what you don’t know can be an asset. Don’t think of it as failing – think of it as an opportunity to learn. (People who are sure they already know it all seldom do, and stop learning). Don’t stay safely with what you already know. Push yourself a bit all the time. “What can I learn today? What can I learn from this?”

And it seems to me we could be more generous in supporting other people, especially those who might not see their own worth. It’s amazing what a kind word can do!


Worth reading: my friend Clare McDowall touches on this in her piece on the old boys club.


Honestly? Why you can’t raise money

Is your smaller organization struggling? Wondering why you can’t get out of the just-squeaking-by-every-year rut? Meet two fundraising enemies: Thinking Small and its evil twin, Wishful Thinking.

Who, little old me?

Thinking Small

Thinking Small works its way in disguised as pragmatism. After all, if your organization is small, you have no choice, right? But it invades your organization’s mindset. Planning is now a luxury. Everything is day-to-day. Your focus is on the next payroll, the next grant. You fund project to project – and often do it backwards (“well, they’d pay for us to do this… it’s not quite our mission, but we could do it”). You’re too busy to plan, and too small to invest in planning anyway.

Make a wish!

Wishful Thinking

Wishful Thinking begins as optimism – a good thing. But soon, it sidles up to you and puts its seductive powers to work. It pushes aside your good sense. And before you know it, you’re removed from reality.

I get it. It’s so wonderful to only see the dream! You find yourself thinking – “Oh, we’ll raise a LOT of money!!” without actually making plans toward those goals. You risk a full-blown case of The Oprah Syndrome – “We’ll find someone with a lot of money and they’ll fund everything!”

At its worst, it pulls you away from your donors. You look at your programs and think “We’re so great! Donors owe us.” You’ve already funded everything in your head – why bother building relationships?

Does any of this sound familiar? You see where this leads, right? It’s like spending hours a day mopping up because of a leaky faucet instead of calling the plumber.


Here’s what you can do

First, stop. That’s right. Stop thinking the world won’t spin without you. Stop thinking you’re too small to take action. Make the time to assess your situation.

Then start making plans. Ask questions: What programs are working well? Which can be fully funded? What would change if we had the funding we need?

There’s no way around it. You’ll have to shift your priorities to succeed. If you want to be stronger, you have to raise more money. If you want to do that, fundraising has to be a priority. You’ll have to invest in it – both time and money. So start planning, step by step, how you’ll do that. It might mean investing reserves, or asking the board or a few loyal donors to invest in your fundraising – as The Agitator has discussed, your return on that investment is likely to be much better than what the bank would give you.  

Be sure your planning involves the whole organization. Of course, to succeed, you need the leaders of the organization. But fundraising has to include everyone!

And then decide how you’ll measure success. Embed those measurements into everyone’s work.

Stop just dreaming and start doing. And remember your donors are your partners. Treat them with the respect they deserve. They don’t owe you a thing – they’ve chosen to be a part of your work. Prioritize those relationships!


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