You’ve been advised that it’s essential you make clear to your donors how deeply the current recession has affected your organization. Your board of directors, your chief executive, your consultants–possibly even all three–are pressing you to talk about the recession in every fundraising letter, at every event, and to every major donor. The idea, of course, is that this will show your donors how much more valuable and important their contributions are during this difficult economic period–and, willy-nilly, they’ll give more. Would that it were so.
At this writing, I can’t cite unequivocal and conclusive evidence that this is the wrong tack to take. However, there is accumulating a body of experience that donors are more likely to be dissuaded from giving rather than induced to give more. Clearly, some donors are predisposed to dig more deeply when times are tough. They’ll probably do so, regardless of what you say about the impact of economic conditions on your organization and its work. Apparently, though, others are too easily reminded that (from their perspective, at least) times are tough for them, too. And, obviously, it’s not a great idea to scare them off.
Instead of taking this simplistic course, then, reconsider why your donors support you in the first place–and reexamine your case for giving in that light. What, after all, do your donors want from you?
· They want to know that you’re doing the most effective job you possibly can with the money they give you.
· They want to know that their gifts are really reaching the people you’re helping, or affecting the issue you’re addressing. (They’re interested in impact, not in paying your salary or your electric bill.)
· They want to know that you value their contributions.
· They want you to report the results of the projects and programs they’ve supported with their gifts.
All this is true, regardless of economic circumstances. However, if you act on the advice I offer in the chapters to come, you’ll be cutting costs and taking other steps to make your operation leaner. You’d be wise to communicate those steps to your donors. Write them about how you’re tightening your belt, increasing efficiency, and monitoring the productivity of your operations more closely. Do not talk about such problems as falling income from corporate and foundation grants and major gifts. Donors don’t really care about how you’re hurting. They care about how well you’re helping your clients or beneficiaries.
However, donor motivation normally runs much deeper than that. It starts with donors’ affinity for your vision, mission, and values.
Vision, mission, and values
You’ve heard it before, no doubt. Individual donors are far more likely to support your organization because of its vision, mission, and values than for any specific reason related to your work itself. If this is the case (and I certainly believe it is), and if your vision, mission, and values are unlikely to change with the seasons (and I certainly believe they shouldn’t), then how can you possibly strengthen your case for giving under difficult economic conditions?
Truth to tell, you can’t–so long as you’ve done the best possible job of crafting a case for giving that relates directly to the core principles and values that animate your organization. Unfortunately, though, for a great many nonprofit organizations, especially smaller ones, little if any thought has gone into what truly motivates people to give and what makes for a powerful case for giving.
So, for starters, what is a case for giving? (I just knew you were going to ask!)
In my view, there are two possible ways to interpret this familiar phrase:
· A case for giving is a copy platform or creative concept that is integrated into all fundraising and marketing materials produced by a nonprofit organization. It’s a statement that positions the organization, describes how its vision takes shape in the real world, and lays out the benefits that a donor may receive for giving to the organization. A case for giving of this sort is generally no longer than a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs–one side of one sheet of paper at the most. It’s not intended for external distribution.
· Alternatively, a case for giving may be a finished document that’s either distributed together with or integrated into a grant proposal to an institutional funder or a major individual donor. A document of this sort may run to many pages and be colorfully, even lavishly illustrated, printed, and packaged. Its sole purpose is to be handed (or, less frequently, mailed) to donors.
· I’ve worked on both types of case for giving. They’re very different, as you can see.
· The elaborate case for giving that a mature nonprofit might develop for a capital campaign or some other major fundraising program will need to include a number of items in detail:
· A statement of purpose that incorporates the vision, mission, and values of the organization
· Either a capsule history of the organization or a statement about the background of and need for the project or campaign
· The budget for the campaign, the project, or the organization as a whole
· A description of the sources of funds you anticipate, providing a context for the Ask and assuring donors that you don’t expect them to be the sole source of money for the project
· A timeline for completion of the work involved
· A specific Ask (or a range of Asks) · Information about donor benefits and recognition
· Illustrations, including charts, graphs, architectural drawings, and photographs, as necessaryEach of these items might require a page or more. It’s not unusual for the case for giving for a major campaign to run to 20 pages or more. Major individual and institutional donors are used to receiving pitches in this form. Apparently, the stiff competition requires it.
But don’t get the idea that writing the other, shorter case for giving is any easier. In fact, doing a top-notch job on any case for giving requires exploring donor motivation in some depth.
Why donors give (or don’t give)
The motivation to give may be triggered by one or a combination of three components:
The emotional–recognizing that not just impulse gifts but thoughtful, continuing support for a cause or institution may rest in large part on an emotional connection
The rational–because few donors operate entirely in an emotional mode but must be convinced that a cause is credible and worthy of support on the basis of its vision, leadership, track record, or other factors
The spiritual–reflecting the fact that much of philanthropy is rooted in spiritual values and beliefs, sometimes stemming from affiliations with organized religious bodies, sometimes more closely associated with deep-seated psychological impulses of the sort that psychologist Abraham Maslow categorized as “self-actualization”
Other than fundraisers for churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious organizations, most people in the field tend to overlook the spiritual dimension of donor motivation. Don’t make that mistake. Many of your donors are likely to be supporting your work at least in part because you’re helping to make the world a better place–by saving the world or preserving the planet, by restoring human dignity, by suppressing violence or redressing injustice–and it’s wise to keep reminding them of that broader contribution you’re making. Others of your donors are no doubt motivated by overt religious beliefs, since research consistently shows that people who attend religious services regularly tend to be far more philanthropic than the average.
· In a general sense, your case for giving must address three needs:
· To describe how you will fulfill your mission and advance your vision if you receive the necessary funds
· To make clear how the gifts you receive will help you achieve the specific objectives of your campaign
· To emphasize in what ways, both intangible and tangible, the donor will benefit from contributing to your cause or campaign
Viewed from a different perspective, your challenge in crafting a case for giving is to establish a link between your donors and your clients or beneficiaries or the issue you address. It’s that connection you need to emphasize, not the connection between the donor and your organization itself.
Let’s try a few examples to make all this clearer.
Case for giving for a food pantry
Your support for The Pantry will help bring closer the day when no one in our community need go to bed hungry at night. Your contributions of food and cash will demonstrate your commitment to sharing with those less fortunate than you and to building the caring community you want to live in.
Case for giving for an environmental advocacy organization
Save the Earth can win the case against global warming at all levels of government and throughout the business sector only with your active participation and generous support. In both ways, you help advance the media campaign and lobbying efforts that are central to our mission. Ultimately, your unwavering commitment to leave our children and grandchildren a healthy, verdant planet and a sustainable economy will be the key to the survival of our way of life.
Case for giving for a community orchestra
As a classical music lover, you know that the arts represent the finest expression of our civilization. Through your generous support for The Symphony, you help keep alive a centuries-old tradition of artistic excellence while making it possible for the young people of our community to express their innermost feelings and gain access to their talents through the Symphony’s Music in the Schools program.
In practice, each of these cases might well be a little longer and more specific than I’ve indicated. Longer or shorter, though, the case for giving needs to connect with donors in every dimension of motivation: emotional, logical, and spiritual. And that language needs to be worked into every appeal and every communication with donors.
I recognize that many nonprofit organizations simply reprint their mission statements in newsletters and sometimes on appeals as well. I strongly believe that a case for giving along the lines I’ve described above will do a much more effective job of motivating donors.
To ask or not to ask
Just as some folks in the nonprofit sector believe (wrongly, in my opinion) that it’s a good idea to emphasize how tough things are when approaching donors, others believe it’s important either to postpone asking for money or, for an indeterminate period, to stop altogether.
This is quite possibly the biggest fundraising mistake you could possibly make.
A decision to put off asking for money comes from the same impulse that makes many nonprofit folks apologize for asking. Never forget that a request for funds for your cause is an opportunity for your donors to validate their cherished values and beliefs. Ask!
Your donors are grown-ups (presumably). If they can’t give at this time, you’ll find it out soon enough. Chances are, though, many of them will be more offended if you don’t ask than if you do.
Your donors want to support you. Don’t get in the way.
This article is excerpted from Mal’s forthcoming book, Fundraising When Money is Tight, which will be released by Jossey-Bass early in 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Mal Warwick. Visit http://www.malwarwick.com/.