[Year-End Fundraising] Messages, Powerful Structures, and Narrative Arcs, Oh My!

Why do people give?

Before we get into messaging, it’s important to understand what motivates people to give. Getting into the mind of your donor helps you write copy your donors will respond to rather than writing what your internal stakeholders want donors to hear. Make sense?

There’s a ton of research into why charitable giving is so high in the United States, but it really boils down to how giving makes us feel and the tax deduction. Yep, as altruistic as charitable giving appears, the psychology of giving is definitely “all about me, the donor.”

Specifically, research shows that we give to:

  • Feel important  You’re part of the team that funded this latest breakthrough! You can brag about that at the next cocktail party. Also, by-the-way, you have access to insider information too.
  • Belong. How many yellow wristbands were there? How many pink ribbons? These talismans demonstrate that you are part of special group, sometimes an elite group.
  • Be happy. “You saved puppies from a terrible life in a puppy mill.” Whose not happy about saving puppies?
  • Being part of a success story speaks to who we are or who we’d like to be  “We’ve built 1,000,000 homes together” or “We eradicated Guinea worm disease.”
  • Get a tax deduction – icing on the cake!
For year-end giving, you have the added benefit of the tax deadline and the fact that everyone else is giving.

Make Your Emails Easy to Scan

One more tip before we get into why people will give to you specifically.

Your message will only be effective if it gets read. Make your email readable–and by readable, we mean “easy to scan” as possible.

The average person spends only 51 seconds scanning your email, so you’ve got to make it easy to understand your message and call-to-action with the most scan-able items in your email:
    • Subject line
    • Headers
    • Headlines
    • Photo captions
    • Call-to-action (buttons and underlined links)
    • Your “P.S.”

Copy Points

Now, how to inspire people give to you, specifically.

The universal messaging model to get results starts with four copy points we shared in your Campaign Brief a few weeks back.

Theory of Change

Theory of Change comes in many shapes and sizes and may seem obvious to you, but needs to be crystal clear to your donors.

You need to convey your mission’s expected outcome and evidence or proof that it’s achievable. For example, charity: water whose mission is to bring safe, clean drinking water to everyone on the planet. 3.5 million people are already benefiting from clean water with proven technologies to find, access, and sustain clean water in developing countries.

Micro-lending’s theory of change is that when families in developing countries have the resources to buy livestock and grain, they can work their way out of poverty, repay their micro-loan, and educate their children to end the cycle of poverty. This program has already been proven through several successful micro-lending programs that are most effective when the micro-lending programs are fully managed by village representatives rather than foreign banks or nonprofits.

Donor Role (Donor as Hero)

Most important: write as if your donors are making the difference, not their donation or money. Example: “When you give today, five children will be immunized and protected from the ravages of meningitis .”

Always talk about your donor and your organization together as a “team,” for example, “together we can rewrite the story of malnutrition.” “Last year we faced insurmountable challenges and overcame them together.”

Sense of Urgency

Year-end fundraising campaigns have a sense of urgency built-in with the Dec 31 tax deadline, but you may choose to enhance your campaign urgency with:

Public Campaign Goal. To increase the “urgency” factor, it’s often helpful to publicly state your campaign goal and use an image to show how your campaign is progressing over a matter of days or even hours. Important point: set your goal low enough that you’ll hit it or you’ll actually suppress donations. No one gives to a losing campaign. If you exceed your goal early, you can very easily bump it up with “the response has been so overwhelming, the board increased our campaign goal from $75,000 to $100,000.”
Matching Gift Campaign. You can also use matching gifts to increase value and urgency. This can be a board match, a corporate partner, or an anonymous donor match. To work, though, it needs to be short in duration. Typically 48, 72, or 96 hours works. We’ve seen longer match campaigns work, but this is year-end, so you only have days to play with anyway. Typically, you drop an email announcing the match and when it kicks off.  Then you drop an email a day during the match campaign with updates and other key messages, including when the match ends.
Premiums. If you have premiums, especially calendars, or other low-cost incentives that you can use to “sweeten the pot” for year-end donors, you can often lift your results, but we’ve found that matching gifts and campaign goals work best.

Emotional Gut Check

We all make decisions based on emotion, not logic.

We love this brilliant insight we learned from our friends over at M+R Strategic Services. Before you hit the send button on any email appeal, ask yourself if this email:

  • Is about how great you are, or how great your donor is. If the former, rewrite your copy to focus on your donor’s emotions, role, and impact, not yours.
  • Is a story you would share outside of this email. Would you tell this story at a dinner party? If so, run with it.
  • Conveys what could happen if your donors disappeared. This may sound dramatic, but sometimes there’s no better way of conveying how important the role of your donors is to your mission than describing what happens when they aren’t there. This one is a fine line. You must be careful to sound credible rather than a drama king or queen.

Narrative Arc

The “narrative arc” is a fancy way of saying that every story needs to have a beginning, middle, and end.

Your nonprofit mission likely solves a serious problem for your constituents or fills a particular gap in society. When your donors read about your mission within a ‘story arc,’ versus a bulleted-fact-based-boring-list-of-accomplishments, it’s always more interesting and compelling to your donors.

Stories really are how we make sense of our world.

There is no set template for a narrative arc, but every good story needs to:

  • Start with a bang, what is the emotional crux of what you fix? Use rich sensory language.
  • Build excitement quickly
  • Create tension–what’s at stake, what’s the threat? What are the consequences?
  • Leverage the suspense or high pitch with an urgent call to action
  • Come back down to earth with a gratifying solution/conclusion and reinforce your call to action

How you tell this story matters. A lot.

Since the day of cave drawings, we humans are hard-wired to learn from stories. In fact, our brains are more active when hearing a story. The catch, is that the story can’t be just a set of facts.

When a story describes fresh clean water relieving a decade long drought, our sensory cortex lights up. When a story is about a veteran learning to walk again after losing a leg to an IED, our motor cortex gets active.

Whether or not you use a narrative arc, please, please, please avoid using large statistics, thousands or millions, that are numbing and difficult to relate to. Whenever possible tell the story of “one” person’s journey that helps us understand the impact we can have on that journey.


Common Trust Logos

Why should a donor trust you with their money?

You must convey your credibility during your year-end campaign, even if you’re 150 years old and little old ladies love, love, love you and you make the “most recognized brand” list every year. Oh yeah, you must do this while still keeping your messaging about the donor (see above).

Key ways to establish trust:

  • Trust logos, such as BBB and Charity Navigator are highly valued “third-party validations”
  • Briefly sharing how many people you and your donors have helped. The example above of charity: water conveying that 3.5M more people are drinking clean water today than when they started. Habitat for Humanity reaching their 1,000,000 homes built this year
  • Who doesn’t like your organization’s work? I once worked on a campaign for a female candidate trying to unseat a male incumbent. We raised a ton of money after the male incumbent publicly declared, “That dame is giving me grief!” People loved that she represented something so different, she ended up winning. Sometimes, in today’s environment, we’re judged by the company we don’t keep.

[Year-End Fundraising] Series

We’re running a series of strategies and tips you can put to use immediately to have your best online year-end fundraising campaign ever. Today’s email is the third in the series. You can see all the posts here:

Coming soon:
  • List segmentation
  • Your Landing Page
  • Your Year-End Lightbox
  • Using social media to boost your year-end revenue
  • Split A/B testing – what’s important to test and how to test it
  • Any other topics YOU ask us to cover. Click Let’s Ask Mandy to submit a question.