You talking to me?

My mailbox leaves me wondering.Talking horse

We’ve all been reading a lot about donor retention. Maybe so much talk it’s in danger of becoming just another buzz word.

But I think it’s critically important. And I’ve seen how powerful a really engaged donor base can be. Organizations benefit from more support, sure. But there’s also something about loyal donors that pushes the entire organization to do better work.

My experience is with smaller and medium-sized nonprofits. When I look at the big ones – via my mailbox – I have to admit to some confusion. Are the big guys taking donor retention seriously?

Smaller organizations have to take it seriously.

In a local market there’s a limited pool of donors and potential donors. You have to do all you can to keep the ones you’ve gained connected. You also don’t have the resources to play the numbers game with acquisition. Mailing hundreds of thousands of pieces just isn’t in the budget. And you have the chance to meet and know your donors as people. The people within the organization and the people supporting it are all members of the same community.

But what are large organizations doing? A few pieces I received recently had me shaking my head and wondering. Let me show you what I mean. (I’ve blocked out names – I’m not trying to shame anyone here.)


Second notice

Is this a bill or an appeal for support?

Is this focused on donors and the difference they make? Or is it a ploy to scare people into opening the envelope? It might work. Obviously, I don’t have access to their results. But I wonder about their reasoning. And I wonder about its long-term effect on giving.

small divider

Then there are all the businesslike acknowledgments I get. Like this one. Notice how it’s all about the organization? I feel like they love – no, like – me only for my money. (But I’m comforted that my support is going to Where It’s Needed Most.)

Thank you letter July 2014

All about them?


Or this one from a few years ago. Note how the organization is the hero… they just want me along for the ride. The only time they get a bit personal is in the ask at the end!

Thank you letter

I’ve hidden the name, but look who’s the hero here. Hint: it’s not the donor.

small divider

Finally, there are pieces like this. Totally tone-deaf. Folks, no one but you cares about your annual appeal goal. It’s not a motivator. It doesn’t matter to your donor. It doesn’t tell me what great thing will happen if I give. No wonder they’ve got two free gifts inside.

Reach our appeal goals


Donor retention matters.

Donor retention is good fundraising and good sense. Treat donors like people, not ATMs. Talk to them often and sound like a person, not a machine. Ask for their thoughts. Thank them personally and promptly. Let them know they’re needed and show them how their generosity makes a difference. Ask for their help.

Do you want to really connect? Show, don’t tell me.

One more about the importance of emotion in your fundraising. This week, let’s look at images, not words.

There is no faster way into our brains than an image.

As Peter Temple explains in this post, “We don’t see words as a series of letters. We see them as pictures.”

He goes on to say that our brains read words as a series of images. We’re able to quickly (milliseconds) put them together when we read. But what we’re doing to read is hard work. We’re constantly translating. (And remember your donors aren’t going to work hard to understand you.)

Images, however, are instantly and easily read. He says that “people can remember more than 2500 images with at least 90 percent accuracy for days after initial exposure.”

“people can remember more than 2500 images with at least 90 percent accuracy for days after initial exposure.”


So, yes, pictures are powerful. But how to use them?

Lisa Sargent warns us against feel-good pictures here.

Why? They’re not as motivating. She cites “emotional contagion” – sad images are catching. (Lisa also links to a post from Jeff Brooks with research reported in the AMA Journal of Marketing Research. The upshot? Sad faces raise more money. Read both these posts for lots of great detail and advice). Resist the urge to show only happy pictures of your work. What you’re communicating is that the problem is solved and the donor is no longer needed. That’s not what you want to say, is it?

I used to drive colleagues crazy, reminding them that our photos needed “eyes and teeth” as Tom Ahern says. Look for photos where your subject is looking directly into the camera. Eye to eye contact, even from the page or screen, is more effective.

boy poor afraid

Eye to eye contact creates a powerful emotional response.



Finally, some advice from Getty Images (they should know from images, right?). They’ve identified four factors that make an image powerful.

1. Authenticity is more important than perfection.

Think about this when you’re choosing your images. It’s more important that they be believable and feel real, even if the photo quality is a little lacking. Some grainy photos that might not even make it into your scrapbook have raised a lot of money. Because they feel real.

2. Cultural relevancy

Here, Getty cites those Cheerios ads featuring a mixed race family. Cheerios experienced quite a backlash. (So sad – it’s 2014, folks!). But for a larger segment of their audience, the ads made a powerful statement. Know what moves your donors and prospective donors. Don’t be afraid to take a stand.


Helping hands

You don’t just see the clay – you FEEL the clay.

3. Sensory currency

This one is interesting, because the same idea works with words as well. Getty mentions the desire for human contact. That urge draws us to images that show hands-on activities and professions. Words or images that stimulate our tactile senses translate well.

4. Classic storytelling archetypes

Archetypes are those classic characters that we see in stories over and over again. Getty mentions one that’s particularly important in fundraising – the hero. Just remember who the hero is – your donor. This is where a positive photo can work – show people doing what you want your donor to do. Frame the heroic work you’re displaying as an invitation for your reader to join in.


Batman and Joker

Remember, your donor gets to play the hero.

Use these powerful triggers to raise more money. (Though your colleagues might worry.)

weird eyeball

I hadn’t joined a cult. I just wanted to remember these important triggers



Last week, I wrote about the importance of emotion in your fundraising. It reminded me of the emotional triggers that raise more money. And that more than once have led to raised eyebrows.

You see, at my last two jobs, my desk was decorated with a list of seven emotional triggers. I posted them as a reminder as I created appeals. But they did concern colleagues who didn’t know what I was up to. One thought I might have joined a cult.

They didn’t need to worry. Because those triggers helped us raise more money. I honestly can’t remember whether it was Jeff Brooks or Tom Ahern who first tipped me off to these. And there are more. But these are the ones I focus on. Here they are for you:








There’s a mix of positive and negative here, so you can use them as the occasion warrants. But use them. Because they’re powerful!

These triggers work because we’re wired for emotion. We’ve evolved to use emotions to guide our decisions. Think of the utility of fear, for instance. When you’re suddenly faced with a predator, it’s a very good thing that you don’t have to wait to intellectually assess your situation. It’s far more basic and instinctive than that. Your fear has you running before you’ve even given it much thought. Thank your ancestors for that – the one’s who didn’t learn didn’t make it.


hungry lion

Do you stay and consider your options? Or do you RUN!?

Not too many of us are suddenly faced with a hungry lion. But emotions are still primary in our modern lives. And that’s why these powerful, basic triggers put your message on the fast track to a decision.

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.

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