Urgent, Not Hysterical
Well, I don’t know but I’ve been told
the streets of Heaven are lined with gold.
I ask you how things could get much worse
if the Russians happen to get up there first?
Wow-wee. Pretty scary.
—Bob Dylan, "I Shall Be Free"
That song was written at the height of the Cold War and skewered the over-the-top paranoia that was, at the time, a dying holdover from the McCarthy era.
It came to mind again during the government shutdown. In the heat of the moment, various players in that debacle used some pretty ridiculous scare tactics to try and convince voters that one side or the other comprised a bunch of dangerous, radical crackpots.
Extreme, apocalyptic rhetoric gets attention. But is it good fundraising?
The definitive answer is … not usually.
For advocacy groups appealing to die-hard partisans, rants about the diabolical intentions of the other side will ratchet up the emotions of people who already agree with you. And can generally motivate them to give. But they won’t help you broaden your support.
For example, most moderate people recognize “the war on (women) (freedom) (the middle class)” for what it is: political hyperbole. And they tune out before the rest of the message has a chance.
Worse, they see it as an insult to those who have been touched by the horror of real war.
Yes, most fundraisers know that advocacy appeals perform better when you have an effective enemy to blame things on. But the best of them also know the critical difference between urgency and hysteria.
Urgency is: “We’re facing a dire situation that’s getting worse by the day. The other side is about to gain the upper hand, and the results could be disastrous. Your support can make all the difference. It will help us mobilize the forces of good and keep the world safe for democracy.”
Hysteria is: “Our enemy is not just dangerous, he’s evil. He has a secret plan to destroy everything you and I hold dear. If you don’t make a gift right now, your children will have no future and the world as we know it will end.”
Those “chicken-little” appeals can be effective for preaching to a choir that believes the sky really will fall if the evil-doers have their way. But those people have always been, and, one hopes, always will be, a small minority. And while they may be extremely loyal, you can only draw water from the same well so many times.
If you want to raise funds beyond your smallest core of supporters, you may need to raise your head above the trenches occasionally and make sure you say things that resonate with a larger group of people.
It may not be as emotionally satisfying as railing against an enemy you despise, but a little moderation just might bring in a lot more resources. So definitely be passionate, be urgent, be forceful and be aggressive. But be believable too.
Heaven knows, if you don’t, it will be the end of democracy as we know it.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.