How to Transport Your Donor Into the Action
I will never forget my visit to the city garbage dump of Manila. We had a major project operating among the people who lived there and made a living out of sorting garbage.
The stench was beyond unbearable. There was acidic smoke everywhere. And the dust wanted to choke the breath out of us. Even more dramatic were the living conditions, the health of the kids, the look of despair in the eyes of a mother who wanted to do better.
I wanted to run away. But I couldn’t, because we were there to gather project information and stories to take to our donors back in the States.
I had read the project descriptions and internalized all the technical information about the need, the strategies, the outcomes and the timeline. I had read success stories that showed how a garbage picker’s life could be transformed. I had all the facts.
But nothing had prepared me for actually being there. It was terrible. And I broke down and sobbed at what I saw, smelled and heard.
It was then I realized that my job as a fundraiser was to transport the donor right into the program action. I was supposed to use words, stories and pictures to create, as best as possible, a mental and emotional experience, so that the donor could, from afar, live the experience.
Now, there is quite a bit of controversy on this point in the fundraising world. Some say describing how things really are is manipulation. It is too emotional. So, fundraisers holding to this philosophy dress up need in pretty clothes in a nice, politically correct way, and then dispense it to their donors who, much to the fundraisers' surprise, are usually not really interested in what they have to say.
And here’s the reason. Need is need. If you are a normal human being you will experience a great deal of emotion when you come face to face with a hurt and broken human being, an abused child, a sick animal or a forest that has been destroyed. It is just not pleasant to be around need. So when you take all the life and emotions out of the stories you tell—when you do that, the reader cannot fully experience the meaning you are wanting to convey.
So why do we try to turn need into something it isn’t? I think fundraisers who dress need up are afraid of their own emotions—they are afraid of the pain they experience when they encounter need. So they first dress it up and place it for themselves in a tidy little emotionless package, which avoids the pain and then they pass it on to their donors.
All of this dressing up and packaging to contain the need and pain is a useless activity. We should be doing the opposite. Rather than protecting our donors from all the reality of the need we should be using every media, picture, choice of words and stories to literally take the donor right into the action—right to the scene. This, in my opinion, is effective communication that has integrity.
Remember, the reason donors give you the money is so you can do what they want to do but can’t. So they give you the money to do it on their behalf. That is the essence of fundraising—that’s how it works. I think it’s your obligation to tell things like they are.
Here are some principles I use to make sure I keep on track in conveying the real need to the donor:
- First, I make sure I have a good fix on what the need is. Oftentimes, you can go to a project site and get distracted by either all the technical jargon the program person is dispensing or sucked into the process of addressing the need. Anytime I am visiting a program site or thinking about the need I ask myself the question: “What is the real need here?”
- Then I ask myself the following question: “What is the consequence of this need not being met?” I might even ask a person with the need what they think the consequence is. If this need is not met, what is going to happen? I don’t think we spend enough time finding the answer to this question. Sometimes we just don’t want to hear the answer. But I suggest you dig into this one thoroughly
- Then I transport myself mentally and emotionally into the need. Yes, that’s correct. Into the need. Get into it and experience it. What does it feel like to be homeless or hungry? What does it feel like to be abused? What does it feel like to be raped or have your son or daughter kidnapped and you will never see them again? What does it feel like to have AIDS? What will you emotionally experience when you have to eat raw garbage to survive or suffer a horrible injustice that you cannot control? Get into it. Feel it. Grieve. Let your heart be broken.
- While I am doing all of this, I make sure that I have asked permission to tell the stories and show the pictures of the persons I am talking about. This is important. Don’t assume you can just tell any story or show any picture without permission.
- Once you have done the four things above, tell your story. Now you are ready to pass it on—to transport your donor right into the action. Now do the telling with great emotion and feeling. Don’t edit. Don’t be afraid to relive what you are telling and cry. It won’t kill you, believe me. These are serious and emotional things.
Much of our world and its people and place are broken and in pain. That’s the reality. And it hurts. It really hurts. As you are being a vessel for good, don’t be afraid to let your donor experience the journey as well.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.