4 Reasons Why ‘Donor as Hero’ Is Wrong for Your Fundraising
When did telling donors “you’re a hero!” become the go-to theme for fundraising of all kinds—for any type of appeal and for any charity?
The hero theme gets used (actually, misused) again and again. You see photos of a “typical donor” wearing a Superman cape. You see Santa Claus with a Superman “S” on his chest, presumably to suggest that Santa thinks donors are heroes, too. You see online fundraising portals that tell donors they’re heroes.
Donors are told they’re heroes by countless charities in virtually every sector, from social services, to international relief, to medical and more. Donors can be heroes by running in a charity 5K, creating an online fundraiser, attending a fundraising party, posting on Facebook or downloading a charity’s app.
The hero references pop up in online, as well as direct mail fundraising. You see faux certificates, badges and awards displaying the donor’s hero status. You see the donor being called a hero for past gifts and for future gifts. You see quotations about heroes that are apparently intended to convince donors of their potential for heroism.
Surely, someone has included a tiny cape in a mailer to show donors how heroic they can be.
What’s more, you see blog posts and articles explaining that the secret to generating donations is to tell the donor he or she is a hero, and that this is what donor-centric fundraising is all about.
That’s a lot of hero worship, and there are few problems with it.
No. 1: Telling Donors They’re Heroes Is Overused
When hero references seem to be everywhere in fundraising, we reach a saturation point. Calling the donor a hero doesn’t mean anything anymore, if it ever did. It’s merely a simplistic way to make the fundraising seem as though it’s donor-focused.
No. 2: ‘Donors As Heroes’ Messaging Is Vague (Even Though It Might Not Seem So At First)
If you can stamp “Hero Campaign” on virtually any appeal—from feeding the hungry to fighting cancer to saving the oceans—that tells you something. The hero theme is generic. It lacks specificity. It’s not targeted. It’s not the pointed messaging it might at first appear to be.
No. 3: Telling the Donor He or She Is a Hero Lacks the Essential Element of Believability.
Donors give for a variety of reasons, from “doing my part,” to “it’s a worthy cause,” to fulfilling a social or religious obligation to simply because they were asked. If you look through the responses from donors about why they give to a specific cause —say, rescue missions—you'll see everything from, "I wanted to do something good," to "People need help," and more. Nobody says, "I wanted the charity to tell me I'm a hero." It just doesn’t ring true. You can just see the donors on the receiving end of all this hero stuff rolling their eyes.
But hold on a second. Isn’t it true that calling the donor a hero can work in fundraising? Yes, appeals like this can work. But in reality, donors could be giving in spite of the hero references, not because of them. Donors may be dismissing it as typical hype and giving anyway simply because they were asked. When this happens, it’s true that we’re getting a donation, but we’re failing to connect with donors in a meaningful way on the basis of shared values.
Think of it this way: Can you imagine a fundraiser talking face to face with a donor and saying, earnestly, “You’ll be a hero when you give!”? No rational donor would ever accept it. It just doesn’t pass the believability test.
Instead of relying on vague hero references, there are lots of copy points just waiting to be used that actually are valid, believable benefits. They include giving to further the research that will lead to a cure for cancer, giving to save the life of a starving child in Africa, giving to let someone get a lifesaving organ transplant and more.
They include helping to make the world a better place. They include feeling good about helping others in need, meeting a social or religious obligation or being a humanitarian. They include living authentically by acting on one’s most deeply held values and beliefs.
They even include thinking of oneself as a good and moral person for giving. This merely scratches the surface. All these and many more are strong benefits that connect with donors at a realistic and human level.
No. 4: ‘Donor as Hero” Is a Metaphor.
It’s not meant to be taken literally or to be used in a literal sense.
It’s a metaphor in the same way that “product as hero” is a metaphor. When advertising legend David Ogilvy talked about making the product the hero of the advertising, he didn’t mean that you should show the Rolls Royce in the ad with a Superman cape wrapped around it. Nor did he mean that you should call the people who made the car heroes or the person who buys one a hero.
What he did mean is that you should make the product glow—make it interesting, exciting and, most of all, appealing to the target audience.
It’s a similar situation with fundraising. We want to make our donor glow. To do that, it’s not enough simply to tell donors that they’re heroes. That alone won’t do much to engage donors in any real or meaningful way.
Instead, we want to make donors feel like they’re taking specific, intentioned actions that have a definable and (this is important) gratifying result. We want donors to feel good about being caring, generous people who are doing what they can to create a worthwhile and necessary change in the world. This is what donors want, and it’s a big part of why they give.
The problem is, “donor as hero” is often misinterpreted to mean that all we have to do is put “Hero Campaign” on an appeal or write “You’re a hero!” and leave it at that, thinking the fundraising is suddenly donor-centric.
This becomes the easy way out to avoid taking the direct-response steps that we know will work in fundraising. These are things like having a strong offer that will motivate donors, tapping into donors’ deeper motives for giving, presenting donor benefits that are believable, putting forward valid reasons to give and more. This is how to create a connection with donors and engage them.
No, donors don’t need to be told they’re heroes by the charities they support. Donors are good, caring, generous people who feel deeply, see the problems in our world and sincerely want to make a difference—preferably a big difference. That gives us plenty to work with in fundraising without resorting to “You’re a hero!” labels that don’t mean much.
If the fascination with telling donors they’re heroes fades away, then there will be less fundraising that involves capes and big S’s emblazoned on things. And instead of talking at donors with hype and fluff, we’ll be talking to donors with copywriting that’s relevant, believable and motivating. And that means better fundraising.
An agency-trained, award-winning, freelance fundraising copywriter and consultant with years of on-the-ground experience, George specializes in crafting direct mail appeals, online appeals and other communications that move donors to give. He serves major nonprofits with projects ranging from specialized appeals for mid-level and high-dollar donors, to integrated, multichannel campaigns, to appeals for acquisition, reactivation and cultivation.