To the Point: You Talk, Donors Listen
The human mind is like one of those kitchen gadgets featured in late-night infomercials. It beats, twists, separates, slices, dices and otherwise transforms everything that enters it. You gave someone a carrot, but before you know it, she's turned it into a bouquet of julienned strips.
In other words, what you think you're communicating often bears little resemblance to what someone hears and thinks. Your ideology is no match for your audience's own mental machinations.
So what's a fundraiser to do? The solution is to understand how your audience's minds work — and adjust your communications accordingly. You have a better chance of success with this approach than you ever have in trying to get your audience to see the world — and your message — as you do.
Small, not big
People understand the world on a personal scale. They can relate to a hungry person more easily than they can relate to hunger on a global level. They're more motivated to act by one man's struggle with homelessness than they are by the fact that an estimated 100 million people worldwide are homeless. People focus on what they can grasp. The bigger the scale of what you're communicating, the smaller the impact on your audience.
What does this mean to you? If you write something like, "Malnutrition, in the form of iodine deficiency, is the most common cause of mental impairment, reducing the world's IQ by an estimated billion points," people might think something like, "Wow, that's depressing. Life stinks for a lot of people. I'm going to go watch Jon Stewart to cheer up."
People aren't bad for thinking this. They're just human. If you want to communicate with them on the scale they comprehend — a human scale — then take the big issue your organization addresses and communicate it through stories about one person, one whale, one tree.
Hopeful, not hopeless
One reason for thinking small is that people tend to act on what they believe they can change. If your problem seems intractable, enormous and endless, people won't be motivated to help. They want to know there is something — anything — that they can fix by giving you money. If you want to raise money, give them a reason to feel hopeful about the impact of their gifts rather than hopeless about the overall prospects for change.
I recently saw some ads about global warming that showed the earth as a melting ice cream cone. This is probably what the environmental organization thought it was communicating: Global warming is real, and we must urgently address it. Give to our organization now.
This is what I was thinking: We're doomed. Oh well.
I found the ad profoundly depressing and demoralizing. How can one donation stop the end of the planet? It won't. So I didn't give. Environmentalists need to give me an aspect of the problem that I can comprehend in scope and feel empowered to change.
True, not false
Many fundraisers are up against misconceptions about their issues. So they spend time debunking the myths. You've seen those myth vs. fact sheets, I'm sure. Here's the problem: The more you talk about the myth, the more airtime it gets and the more people remember it. And unfortunately, it might be all they remember. There's plenty of research showing the myth vs. fact approach helps perpetuate the myth.
Imagine you're an advocacy organization trying to convince Americans a health care reform proposal does not ration care. This is important to raising money for your efforts. You might say:
Myth: Health care reform means rationed care.
Fact: No proposals would prevent people from getting the care they need from their doctors.
And here's what people will think: Wait, what did you say about rationed care?! My care could be rationed?!
Stick to the truths; don't repeat the myths.
And in conclusion, I'll add, stick to these principles, not your talking points. You know you're in trouble if you ever find yourself thinking of your audience: "If they only knew … " or "If they just understood … "
They don't know and they don't understand the world the way you do. So communicate small, hopefully and with the truth. You might end up having what we all want with our donors: a meeting of the minds. FS