'And I Should Support You ... Why?'
The fundraising proposition transcends medium, culture and class. Sometimes it's given to you on a plate. Other times it's hard work to uncover it. But one thing's for sure: It's fundamental to a successful fundraising campaign.
The increasing number of fundraising channels available whets the appetites of fundraisers all over the world, yet they yield little if the case for support is weak. As disposable income comes under pressure and advertising messages increase, it's simply not enough to say that "your donation will make a difference."
Lucy Gower, a speaker at the International Fundraising Congress in October who provides training and consulting to charities in fundraising innovation, agrees. "Sometimes we chase the new, shiny, exciting things and forget the basic principles of good fundraising. As well as looking forward, we need to constantly remind ourselves what fundraising propositions have worked in the past and never forget those lessons, because they are at the core of what good fundraising is all about," she says.
"A classic example of a beautifully simple and effective case for support was Help the Aged's press ad, 'Make a blind man see — £10,' which was created by the legendary fundraiser Harold Sumption and ran for many years during the 1990s," she adds. "Those six words tell you all you need to know."
There are many classic fundraising propositions like this, picking a particular aspect of the charity's work, while others embrace the whole of an organization's work just as succinctly.
WaterAid's proposition, which ran unbeaten for many years until recently, was "Give water. Give life. Give £2 a month." Again, an artful distillation of its case for support, made even more relevant to its audience by the insertion of the message into every household's water bill.
External influences on your work can be rich seams to mine for propositions. The RSPCA involved its supporters in fighting for a change in the law that would allow the organization's inspectors to intervene when they saw evidence that might lead to an animal suffering (previously by law they would have to wait until the animal was actually suffering).
The law was passed, but it meant an immediate increase in the society's workload for its inspectors and animal centers. The RSPCA made a call to animal lovers to "join our biggest animal rescue" in mail, DRTV and online. The campaign ran for several years, and when the economic downturn saw people unable to look after their pets and dumping them outside RSPCA animal centers, this bolstered the case for support. Another proposition was born: "Help the credit crunch victims."
So even events that might seem detrimental to giving can be used to create compelling propositions. This is where charities have to examine the ways they work and the external influences on their services, and identify reasons to give, even from the most unpromising situations.
Can they 'see' it?
Tangible propositions, where the audience is asked to donate to fund specific items or projects, are very effective. Whether it's a sachet of rehydration salts to stop a child dying from diarrheal diseases, a square meter of a wildlife reserve or a meal for a homeless person, donors like to feel that their gifts do something that they can easily visualize.
When Greenpeace commissioned its new Rainbow Warrior vessel, it used the online arena to demonstrate a compelling proposition. Donors could see the plans of the ship online and choose which parts to pay for, from a bolt, to an anchor, soap dish, a piece of sail or even the whole wheelhouse. This "crowdsourcing" attracted more than 100,000 donors, each buying a different part of the vessel.
Propositions like this can work in any media — and in different cultures, too. In 1997, the Ethiopian branch of a small charity, Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief, was working to replant trees in Ethiopia to counter the damaging effects of deforestation. This was the first time direct-mail fundraising was attempted in Ethiopia, but the proposition that a donation would plant a tree brought a fantastic response rate. You can read the fascinating story behind this campaign on the SOFII website.
Keep it personal
Great fundraising propositions always have need at the center. But it does not necessarily have to be over-the-top in dramatizing the problem. Be informed by your audience. The more personal the cause, the more positive the proposition should be.
Most people are touched by cancer. They know what a terrible thing it is and don't want or need to be reminded. Cancer Research UK has used variations of its core proposition, "A gift to CR-UK brings hope to people touched by cancer," very successfully for many years. The need is expressed as donations to help researchers find treatments — to bring hope.
Relevance to your audience can also be geographical. Many people subscribe to the belief that "charity begins at home" and are more likely to give if they feel their gifts will be used to make a difference in their towns or regions. For example, the proposition "Your gift will provide a meal for a homeless person" works much better if presented to residents of the West Midlands as "Your gift will provide a meal for a homeless person in Birmingham." The more you can tailor your proposition to your audience, the better it works.
Ruth Ruderham, head of fundraising at the Canal & River Trust — another 2012 IFC speaker — is working on a campaign that is about as local as you can get.
"We are starting many small wildlife projects throughout the canal and river network, and we wanted to engage with people as they walk through these areas. For example, in an area by the Llangollen Canal, volunteers are creating a community orchard that will benefit local people and wildlife.
"So we are displaying signs along the towpath by the canal asking people to donate three pounds by text, which will pay for planting one fruit tree. We're engaging with the right audience, people who enjoy walking by canals — and in exactly the right place, where the work is being carried out. They can do it right there on the spot."
Charity propositions mostly offer the "customer" a sense of satisfaction in making something good happen, but there are some instances where value can be given to the donor. Membership organizations offer incentives that are attractive to an interested audience, such as free entry to museums, galleries or nature reserves; special events; and magazines. Although some purists dislike these "commercial" propositions, there is no doubt that they are very effective in increasing membership and engaging more people with the issues that organizations are involved in.
"Sponsorship" can be a very successful way to reach more supporters, as well. International development charities such as Plan, World Vision and ActionAid have built large and loyal supporter bases around the proposition of "sponsor a child." Donors want evidence that their gifts do good and are prepared to pay a premium to read that evidence in letters from the children or communities they sponsor.
The fundraising proposition should be one of the sharpest tools in the fundraiser's toolbox, but its blade should never be allowed to dull. Look inside your organization to develop new propositions, and keep an eye on the external environment, too. Examine the propositions you use, and ask yourself, "Could they do with sharpening up a little?"
Nick Couldry is a U.K.-based freelance charity writer. Reach him via his website.