Will This Bad Fundraising Idea Ever Die?
It's not the worst idea in fundraising, but if years of research are right, it's bad enough to matter.
This bad idea has proved amazingly sticky, especially in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. In fact, it's so widely accepted, I'm not sure that it's even been tested in a head-to-head match-up.
The bad idea is this:
A strong fundraising message requires a mix of heart and head. You have to give donors and prospects facts and statistics to show them the scope of the problem. And you have to touch their emotions with stories that motivate them to give.
Increasingly, fundraisers are coming to understand that telling emotional stories improves results.
But we're not yet ready to hear that numbers can actually hurt them.
When NPR aired a piece a couple of weeks ago called "Why Your Brain Wants to Help One Child in Need But Not Millions," everyone was talking about it. Here's the core of the report:
"In one study, (psychologist Paul) Slovic told volunteers about a young girl suffering from starvation and then measured how much the volunteers were willing to donate to help her. He presented another group of volunteers with the same story of the starving little girl — but this time, also told them about the millions of others suffering from starvation.
"On a rational level, the volunteers in this second group should be just as likely to help the little girl, or even more likely because the statistics clearly established the seriousness of the problem.
"'What we found was just the opposite,' Slovic says. 'People who were shown the statistics along with the information about the little girl gave about half as much money as those who just saw the little girl.'"
Before subjects were ever exposed to the fundraising story, one group was asked to do some simple math problems, while the other was asked to make a list of "feeling" words.
Then both groups read the same letter. The people who had done math problems before they read the story donated far less money than those who had been primed with emotional language.
It seems that just turning on the analytical side of the brain — even outside the context of the appeal — is enough to reduce readers' generosity.
So, with clear evidence that statistics reduce gift size, why are we so afraid to let go of them?
In "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas," Matt Miller writes, "We all know in our own lives how powerful the inertia of a Dead Idea can be, though it's often only in retrospect we appreciate how hard it was to recognize."
In his book "Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy," Bill Clinton puts it even more succinctly, "The status quo is represented by much more powerful lobbying groups than the future."
It's a maxim that fundraising is counterintuitive. Yet we stay wedded to intuitive, reasonable, "logical" traditions, even when we know they don't work.
There's a lot of talk about the need for innovation in fundraising. As there should be. But before new ideas are introduced, we should make sure the old ideas from which they spring are true. Putting the conventional wisdom about facts and emotion to the test would, in my opinion, be really innovative.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 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, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.