The power of one


one (Photo credit: andrechinn)

You’ve probably been hearing the story of young Sarah Murnaghan, the 10 year old girl with end-stage cystic fibrosis. She’s in desperate need of a lung transplant. Without one, she isn’t likely to survive the next couple of weeks. But transplant rules don’t allow her to move to the front of the line – before adults and teens equally in need – for an adult lung. And pediatric lungs for transplant are rare.

The girl’s parents are understandably fighting every way they can to save their child. Earlier this week a judge ruled that she could receive an adult lung. But every aspect of the situation is sad and complicated. Sarah’s success means some other person will go without.

I can’t address the ethical complications of this sad situation. But I want to point out what a perfect illustration it is of what Roger Dooley calls “the power of personalization”. Fundraisers, pay attention!

The story of children suffering from cystic fibrosis is not new. The problem of inadequate supplies of organs for transplants is not new, either. As I write, the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network says there are 1,658 people waiting for a lung transplant. That includes children under 12.

But most of us aren’t gripped by this important issue until a little girl’s story is in the headlines. Then we’re confronted with something awful. A sweet little girl. A looming death sentence. Suddenly, we’re focused. Suddenly, it’s urgent.

The problems – cystic fibrosis or organ transplants – are too big for us to grasp. We feel hopeless in the face of daunting numbers. But show us one little girl facing death and we’re ready to do whatever we can for her.

We can’t help it. We’re made that way. As Dooley says: “our brains are wired to respond more strongly to an individual plight”.

This is very important. Do you want to raise more money? Then focus on one person your donor can help. Tell a story about one person in need. Show your donor how he or she can help that person. Then offer a solution – they can help! You can show them how!

Resist the urge to talk about statistics. Resist the urge to talk about how huge the problem is. Numbers don’t help your cause. Big problems don’t rouse us. You won’t persuade people to donate with rational arguments. It’s emotion that moves us, not logic. We give from the heart. 

So when you write, write to one person about one person.

Nancy Schwartz also wrote a piece on this a few years ago that I came on while researching mine. (And after I had written my title, I promise!) I urge you to read that as well.



UPDATE: Sarah will be getting a new lung. More here:

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  1. Mary, I quite enjoyed your post. You did a great job of linking an emotionally-charged current event with an important message about the value of storytelling in the fundraising process. As a fundraiser, and as a Philadelphian, I applaud you.

    The only thing I would add is that it is also important that the message be from one person to one person. I hate seeing letters that say, “We are writing to our friends to…,” or some variation. Instead, “I am writing to you today…” It’s much more powerful, personal, and in keeping with the Power of One idea.


    • Totally agree, Michael. I think I said that – write to one person about one person. I’ve had to persuade many a person (who would be signing what I wrote) that the royal we does NOT work. Usually, they object on the basis of modesty… “it’s about the organization, not me!”. But it’s not. It’s a communication between one person and one other.

      And that makes it so much more powerful!

      Thanks for commenting!


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    Mary Cahalane

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