[ Note: in accordance with accepted fundraising practice, I hereby present a link that you can click if you just want to give some money to the Legal Information Institute without having to read the rant that follows. Two rants, really, because this is a rant about a rant. ]
Two fundraising-related things went across my radar screen this morning. The first was a post in Jeff Brook’s excellent “Future Fundraising Now” blog. The second was a TV ad for a child-hunger-relief charity. They crashed together with a loud clang.
I have learned a lot from Jeff Brooks over the last year, almost all of it absolutely on-target and helpful. I’ve been trying to educate myself about fundraising and fundraisers, so I went from reading 20 or so fundraising blogs intermittently, to steadily reading the best and most useful. His blog really stands out from the pack. The ones I read attentively are selected both for usefulness to a novice like me, and because they often promote fundraising ideas and messaging that I find at least counterintuitive and sometimes very difficult to agree with. That’s good for me, and for the LII’s fundraising appeals. I lack experience, and I know it (and I’m about to demonstrate that).
You should read the Brooks piece here. The thrust of “Who’s destroying your fundraising messages?” is that inexperienced executive directors are gutting fundraising efforts by insisting on dry narratives that contain only facts, figures, and program descriptions that lack emotional appeal for donors. Of course fundraising messages need to connect with donors at an emotional level -- that’s just good sense. But the hyper-emotional appeal is not the only available strategy, and I don't believe that it is equally effective for all people, all organizations, all causes, or all donor cultures.
It can surely be taken too far. About a half-hour after I read the Brooks piece, I saw a TV spot for an organization that works with child hunger. A Very Well Fed Fellow In A Bush Jacket, wandering around in an Impoverished Place That Is Clearly Not The United States, shows us a parade of impoverished children. Pictures of the starving are accompanied by a grandfatherly narration about how much they’re suffering. He ends with a description of “little Daniela” who will “be hungry again tonight”. That’s when the bell went off. Why, after her stint as a spokesmodel, is she going to be hungry? They couldn’t leave a tip? I really hope the sound guy or the cameraman or Bush Jacket Grandpa gave little Daniela a Clif bar and a bottle of water. Or maybe they just threw the gear in the Land Cruiser and tooled off to find more kids who are starving in an appropriately photogenic way.
That’s an extreme example and -- let me say it again -- I’ve got no beef with the idea that good causes have to find ways to connect with their supporters. However challenging it may be, we need to demonstrate the impact of what we do in ways that are effective and meaningful at an emotional level. Of course we do. We want people to support us. We want to show both the value that our work has for real people, and that their support is being used in ways that are actually accomplishing something in the world -- and that means show, and not just tell. But to insist that every mission and every program provide a 100-kilonewton tug to the heartstrings is sometimes inappropriate and sometimes -- very infrequently, but sometimes -- counterproductive for the mission of the organization.
To the fundraiser who found his ED so uncooperative, I’d say this:
a) Many EDs, as people, are simply not comfortable making what they see as hyperbolic, hyper-emotional statements about what they do. They don’t do it in person and they don’t like seeing their organizations do it. They feel like they’re showing their underwear in public, making claims and being manipulative in a way that is fundamentally immodest. Most of them are deeply (and emotionally!) committed to the cause they work for, but they’re shy about how they say so. They believe in appeals to reason; they find them highly motivating. And by the way, that’s true of the geek culture here at the LII and of the donors (who tend to be geeks, lawyers, or both) who support us. The very popular book, “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands”, a collection of crash-courses for those doing business with other cultures, spills a lot of ink over the question of what other cultures accept as evidence; it’s worth thinking about. Some of those cultures are closer to home than you think.
It’s not that EDs who don’t like hyper-emotional appeals don’t respect the work of fundraisers, or that they don’t understand it (though very few, including me, actually do). It’s that they believe in policy and they believe in technical and structural solutions, and in order to be successful program directors they have learned to channel their own emotional energy into the dispassionate place where administration, evaluation, and strategic thinking have to take place. The best fundraisers I know are completely schizophrenic -- warm on emotional appeals and personal connections, dead cold on the numbers and on evaluation.
Besides, there’s a way to deal with this. How come the copywriter didn’t suggest to his ED that they simply do an A/B test? The ED is persuaded by numbers. Give him some.
b) Somebody I once did theater with used to insist that the first rule of comedy is this: If you bring a paper shredder onstage somebody’s necktie *has* to go into it.
In other words, you have to deliver on implied promises. I’m not sure what the stewardship implications of highly emotional appeals are. My guess is that those who write them are figuring that that’s somebody else’s problem, or that rationality and practicality can come later. If I call the children’s charity and say, “Hey, how’s Daniela doing?”, are they going to have an answer for me? What if I decide that Daniela’s the only kid in the entire world that I’m willing to sponsor? The deliberate impracticality of strong emotional appeals raises practical issues. They can, and do, implicitly overclaim. Just as the heart responds to the emotional appeal, the heart envisions a happy solution that may or may not be possible for the organization to deliver. If we imply a promise to change the world overnight, what happens when we don’t?
c) I’ve seen copywriters who can’t find an emotional hook for their message give up and look no further, or worse, fabricate something. They assume that if they can’t summon up an emotionally appealing beneficiary in the first hour they work for the organization, then there is no message to be had. If they stop there -- and some do -- they end up knowing far less than they ought to about the mission, operations, and impact of the organizations they work for. If they can’t find an “if it bleeds, it leads” story to tell, they think there’s nothing to say.
Trust me, every organization has a story or two to tell that will make a connection with donors, and I suspect that in dismissing everything that doesn’t have immediate and obvious emotional impact a lot of very valuable stuff gets lost, including, sometimes, the true appeal of the organization (one of ours is objectivity, see below). The answer to that ED and his problems with your heart-rending story is to simply ask him why he does what he does. And ask the rest of the staff. And ask the donors why they give. Find out what your organization does, how it does it, and what the people who do it feel about what they do. Be creative.
d) Overfocus on emotional appeals can, in some fairly rare cases, distort the organization’s mission and dilute its effectiveness. The LII is, I think, one of those rarities. I’m well aware that Special Snowflake Syndrome is a risk for all EDs, but I really do think that what we do here is a little different and more challenging.
Our job here is to make legal information available to people -- Federal law and regulations, and the writings of the Supreme Court -- all products of public institutions that at any given moment may be more or less popular with potential donors. We are based only on the Internet, where we attract more than 24 million unique visitors every year. We know very little about all but a very few of them. But every donor or audience survey we have ever done in our 20-year history lists objectivity as a key component of our value in the minds of those we serve. We don’t want to compromise that with over-emotional appeals that would, inevitably, try to make their case by invoking partisan sentiment about government. We’ve seen this happen in other organizations. We have many colleagues and allies at organizations that promote government transparency. And we’ve watched over the years as some of those organizations have rallied their troops and raised money by taking deliberately oppositional stances that diminish their effectiveness with the very people in government whose help they most need. Whipping up the emotions rallies the supporters and it brings money in the door, but it can also make a lot of people less cooperative.
Bottom line: the right answers are negotiated between the two poles represented by the ED and the copywriter. And then they’re tested. I wonder how much of the money that was lost by the organization in the Brooks story was lost because the copywriter was trying to teach the ED a lesson.
We’re grappling with all these questions here at the LII. Going into this season we’ve thought a lot about our impacts, our message, and what we want to say to the thousands of people who give us a little bit of money because we helped them, or because they want to help someone else. Because we deliver our services in what is essentially an anonymous, broadcast medium, it can be hard to know what concrete benefits we have for a particular individual in a particular place. We know that we help a lot of them for not very much money (about 5 cents for every person we serve in a year). They have their own reasons to need access to law, and the law is itself, in turn, a tool for accomplishing something in their lives, for solving problems that they have. To borrow a bit from Harvard Business School marketer Ted Levitt, we sell electric drills to people who want quarter-inch holes. And, come to think of it -- they don’t really want the holes, either. They want to hang something on the wall, and we don’t know what.
We’re learning a lot more about what some of those purposes are and how we can change and improve our collections and our technology to help them find and understand what they need. We don’t have very many dramatic stories to tell -- yet. Our biggest job is to help people reduce the amount of drama in their lives, by helping them solve problems that involve getting a little knowledge of what the law says. Among the people that we help are lawyers at non-profit organizations (literally hundreds of them) who would rather spend money on their mission than on access to the tax laws. So we are saving the world -- we’re just doing it through others, one statute at a time.
We offer that -- all 500,000 pages of information -- freely, to 24 million people each year, at a cost of about a nickel apiece. We do it without drama and with as much objectivity as we can manage. We’d like your help. Please give by clicking here.
And if you’ve got a good story to tell about how we helped you, please send it along.