The ‘Good Feelings’ Business: The Emotional Core of Nonprofit Fundraising
I bet the last thing you want to hear more about right now is storytelling. There are innumerable books, articles, speeches, even whole conventions about it. “CONTENT IS KING!” innumerable hordes of consultants seem to stream out of every doorway to yell at you, hurling forth platitudes about “the untapped potential of narrative.” But underneath all those clichés and salesmanship, there is actually a profound truth about how charity works.
If you are an organization that relies on charitable giving, your income depends on your ability to inspire a particular kind of emotional response in potential donors. This might sound wishy-washy and vague, but it’s actually quite concrete and specific, and understanding it is crucial to your success.
Keeping Donors Emotionally Interested in Your Cause
People give to charities because it makes them feel good. Altruism feels wonderful, and people give more the better it makes them feel. This is the very foundation of your existence as a charity — not just doing good in the world, but allowing your donors to feel that they are doing good. In a real way, you are actually in the business of selling those good feelings in exchange for donations. As much as you are a community organization, a wildlife sanctuary, a research center, a museum or a school, you are a professional purveyor of warm fuzzies. They are the primary ROI that your donors expect, and your development department needs to be set up to deliver them. If you do not have the tools to generate altruistic emotions, you actually have very little to sell, and your revenue will reflect that deficit.
And this is not a one-time transaction. To keep people supporting, to inspire them to increase their support and to encourage their friends, family and coworkers to also support, you need to provide new doses of those altruistic emotions on a regular basis. If you’re not constantly refreshing their interest with new stories of how their support is being put to work in emotionally compelling ways, they will lose interest and move on to a new cause that they find more exciting and inspiring. This is the real function of your organization’s media output.
This is because the decision to give is not, at its base, an intellectual decision. When asked why they decided to give, donors may cite data — statistics, financial reports, white papers — but in reality, these are how they justify their decision to give. The initial decision to support was almost always already in place, and it was a decision they made emotionally. They saw or heard something that made them feel that your work was something they wanted to be a part of.
This is not to say that accurate hard data about the impact of your programs isn’t important. It’s crucial, and when it can’t be easily found, donors will often change their mind between the time of that initial inspiration to support you and when the check is actually written and mailed. But data alone is woefully ineffective at creating that initial inspiration because inspiration lives in the heart, not in the head. The feeling comes first, understanding much later.
The good news is that you can actively work to cultivate these kinds of good feelings. You do this by displaying the work you do clearly and compellingly, so your current donors feel that they are a part of something important, and new donors feel that they would like to be. This sounds simple, but far too many organizations aren’t doing it effectively.
Effectively Telling Your Nonprofit’s Stories
Of course, there are lots of ways to tell a good story: You can speak to people one-on-one and face-to-face, gather people at events, create print pieces (like mailers, brochures or magazines) or you can create digital media (like websites, videos, podcasts and social media campaigns). Each of these — an elevator pitch, a gala, a brochure, a video — is a tool for emotional connection. And like the tools in a carpenter’s toolbox, each is well-suited to accomplish a different task.
No doubt, many of you are using a combination of these tools every day, in one way or another. Far too many organizations, though, create these tools without enough attention to the characteristics that will actually make them effective, which is their ability to elicit a strong emotional response.
For many organizations, this begins with the fact that promotional media is created grudgingly, with resentment that the resources required aren’t being used for something they see as more important.
They might say to themselves:
- “We’re a school (or a museum, or a neighborhood organization, or a laboratory) …not a TV station. Why should we have to spend so much time and money producing videos for our website?”
- “We spend all this time and money on the member magazine, and we’re not National Geographic… wouldn’t it be better to spend that money on programming?”
- “We’re already spending thousands on the venue and catering for this gala, why should we spend more on some fancy movie to show at it?”
- “Our intern knows Photoshop, so why should we hire an expensive designer to lay out this brochure?”
These attitudes betray a lack of understanding that your organization’s external communications are critical tools, not frivolous luxuries.
Understanding the Role of Media in Donor Cultivation and Stewardship
It might be easy to forget how often a well-run development team needs well-made pieces of media in order to secure and develop a new donor. Let’s look at a typical processes.
A member of your staff has the opportunity to meet a wealthy woman who is known for her generous charitable giving. They strike up a conversation, and he impresses her with his well-practiced description of how your organization is making an important impact in fighting a serious problem that she cares about. He caps off the interaction by handing her a beautiful brochure, featuring excellent photographs of some of the people your program is helping. This lays the groundwork for her to accept your invitation to your gala, where she meets more of your team members, who tell her heartwarming anecdotes of their work in the field. During the gala, she hears an impassioned speech by your board president, and then sees a beautifully shot and edited video that showcases the work being done and features moving testimonials from some of the families your organization has helped. She’s excited to make an initial donation right there on the spot, and then over the next few weeks she shares that video over social media, emails several of her charitably-minded friends and sends them to your website, where they watch that same video and several more like it. Then they decide they would like to attend an upcoming cocktail party, where they are also inspired to give.
Now one of your most vocal supporters, she is constantly reminded by new videos, brochures and events of how your organization is continuing to grow and do good work, and she increases her support by 20% to 50%percent every year for the next 10 years.
At each of these points of interaction, it wasn’t just a statistic and an open palm that closed the deal, it was something that was specifically designed to elicit an emotional response. At each, there was a well-conceived and well-produced narrative tool — a spoken pitch, a brochure, an event, a video, a website — that gave her the feeling that the organization was doing real good in the world and allowed her to feel good about giving and refer others.
If at any point she wasn’t given the story in a new and emotionally compelling way, the chain from curious stranger, to active donor, to evangelist for your cause would have been stalled or broken altogether. It was the emotional resonance of each of those pieces that allowed the process to continue — giving her a boring brochure or showing her an uninspiring video would have been just as bad (or even worse) than not having one at all. It’s easy to forget that your organizational media output is almost always the only interaction your donors have with your programming. Without documenting what you do effectively and distributing those stories to the people who need to hear them, all your good work is a tree that fell in the forest with no one to hear it.
And so, like it or not, you are in the “good feelings” business. You have to dedicate time, attention and resources to actively making your donors feel good about the work you do by regularly showing them that work in a way that is exciting and inspiring. If you don’t, they will take their money and give it to another organization that does.
David is the founder and creative director of the NYC-based multimedia production company CitizenRacecar, which has been creating emotionally compelling videos and podcasts for nonprofit organizations since 2012. Clients include The Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation, The New York Academy of Sciences, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, Association of Fundraising Professionals (NYC Chapter), New Jersey Conservation Foundation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
He lives in Queens, NY, with his wife, a nonprofit executive, and two children. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, gardening, birdwatching and playing bass in the locally-famous rock and roll band The Lowers.