The need to present appeals in an engaging way is why many fundraising professionals have previous marketing experience or qualifications because, like it or not, fundraising is selling. Just because you are ‘selling’ the good work that your charity does, you must avoid ‘falling in love with your stock,’ as marketing people say. If you ever hear anyone on your staff saying, ‘Our charity sells itself,’ don’t you believe it. The truth is, all causes are ‘good causes,’ so your job is to present your appeal in a way that differentiates you from the many other charities that are clamouring for attention, and in a way that engages the emotions of your target donors.
Type of Appeal
The first decision you need to make is what type of appeal you want to develop. Are you conducting an annual gift appeal? An emergency appeal to secure matching funds? A capital appeal to buy equipment or build a building? Ask yourself why you are choosing this method of fundraising. Appeals are most effective when they are very specific in four areas:
1. timing – an appeal should have a beginning, middle and end. Specify the timeframe in your appeal message, whether it’s a short-term appeal of 2-6 weeks, a seasonal appeal (Christmas, Easter, back-to-school, etc) or an appeal based on an anniversary (of your organisation’s founding, for example), etc.
2. amount required – let your audience know exactly how much you intend to raise. Choose an amount that is achievable, yet ambitious, and linked to a specific purpose (see #3).
3. purpose – be as specific as possible, even if you are just looking for operating costs (‘it will help us serve [your beneficiaries] for the next six months…’). Ideally, an appeal will have a tangible outcome – x number of beneficiaries served, a vital piece of equipment purchased, a building funded, etc.
4. amount requested – appeals for specific amounts tend to elicit higher response rates, even when the amounts are relatively low. This is especially effective when you are requesting donors to become regular contributors (through direct debit, for example.) Think of television appeals requesting amounts such as €5 per month. Think, too, about offering specific ranges of giving, perhaps with token gifts associated with each giving level.
Once you understand the structure of your appeal, be sure to give it an appealing name!
There is no such thing as ‘the general public.’ Be as specific in your planning as possible about who you expect to respond to your appeal. The larger the donations sought, the more specific your audience must be. (Although very large donations should be sought through a Major Gifts approach – a separate strategy beyond the scope of this article.) But even if you are seeking gifts of €1-€5, you should consider the profile of your best potential donors … people most likely to be moved to action by your appeal (Women under 20? Office workers? Male football supporters?).
Appeal to Emotions
I’m assuming here that your appeal will take the traditional form of a fundraising letter. There are many other methods available, including radio & television advertising, emails, etc, each requiring different skills and resources to implement. However, any appeal needs a clear and compelling message that makes an emotional (rather than intellectual) case for support.
One caveat: by ‘emotional,’ I do not mean ‘sentimental,’ and in fact if your appeal is perceived to be sentimental it will not only be ignored, but your organisation’s reputation will suffer as a result.
The difference between a powerful emotional appeal and sentimentality is that the latter is unearned and manipulative, whereas the former points to genuine feelings on the part of your beneficiaries, those who serve them, and, most importantly, on the part of your donors. In other words, you should think long and hard about what giving to your appeal will make your donor feel. Again, be as specific as possible. ‘Being proud to support such a worthy cause’ is far too vague to reach a modern donor. Something like ‘your donation will help turn a child’s fear into hope’ gets much closer what your donors want to feel, and has a much better chance of inspiring them to get out their chequebook.
This is the non-profit equivalent of the marketing adage benefits not features. Buyers are less impressed by the features of a widget than by what it can do for them. (Marketers love telling the story that thousands of 6mm high-speed steel drill bits were sold last year, but nobody wanted a 6mm high-speed steel drill bit. They all wanted a 6mm hole!). So, stress the benefits to your donors, as opposed to the needs you are facing. Emotional benefits (the ‘feel good’ factor), the prestige of being associated with your organisation, recognition in your newsletters, on signage, etc, or gifts provided for different giving levels are all different types of benefits that you might highlight in your appeal letter.
Of course, if you are launching a genuine emergency appeal, you will have to break this rule somewhat, and clearly state your urgent needs. Still, don’t overlook the benefits to your donors of helping you through this crisis.
One aspect of an emotional appeal is urgency, so try to establish a genuine reason that funds are needed now. For example, is there a budgetary deadline you are facing? Do you need to raise a specific amount to receive a matching grant? Is there a danger that some of your beneficiaries will not be served this year if you don’t raise the appeal amount by a specific date?
Besides, if you’ve followed the rules above, you’ve chosen this appeal for a specific reason, within a specific time frame because you genuinely need money now. Don’t be shy about stating those reasons clearly, compellingly and emotionally.