Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion and empathy. – Dean Koontz
The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy. – Meryl Streep
Friendship is a living thing that lasts only as long as it is nourished with kindness, empathy and understanding. – Author Unknown
The most valuable things in life are not measured in monetary terms. The really important things are not houses and lands, stocks and bonds, automobiles and real state, but friendships, trust, confidence, empathy, mercy, love and faith. – Bertrand Russell V. Delong
Throughout the chapters on the Get R.E.A.L. process, I repeatedly referred to “P.Y.I.T.S.” Let’s take a closer look at how putting ourselves in their shoes can make our fundraising far more effective.
I once had a colleague who wrote an end-of-the-year letter that drove home the importance of P.Y.I.T.S. Those of us asking people for money, volunteers and employees, need to constantly be putting ourselves into the shoes of the person receiving the solicitation. He was a numbers person who wrote the letter in a way that motivated him. The main thrust of the letter was something like:
Alumni, we need to raise more money. The parents have nearly reached their goal at 90 percent, but the alumnae have only raised 20 percent of their goal. We really need your help to pull this thing together.
She worked for weeks on crafting this letter. After a couple of us read it, we went to her office, closed the door, and told her we thought it was terrible.
As we were reading the letter, we thought about how we would feel if we didn’t work with this nonprofit and we’d received this letter. We found ourselves thinking things like: “That’s not my problem;” “I don’t care what your goals are—sounds like you should set them lower;” and “a letter like that is not going to encourage me—or anyone else, for that matter—to give.” I was very surprised by my strong adverse reaction.
Once I made a one-time gift to a large national organization that followed up each December with strong emotional appeal for money. Each year, the letter basically said, “We’re not going to make our budget if you don’t help us out.”
The first time I saw this letter, I felt bad for the organization. Finally, after three years of receiving these letters, I called them up and said, “If you guys are that fiscally unsound and you can’t manage the money you’ve been given, I can’t even consider giving you a gift.” They were shocked at my reaction. They’d been mailing this package for years. These letters actually came halfway through their fiscal year but most of their donations came in December.
If you have a sincere crisis, then by all means tell your donors! Bad things happen to the best causes. But if you’re really not going to make budget and you’ve waited this long to communicate effectively, you probably won’t be around much longer anyway. Crying “Wolf!” is a sure-fire way to get people to ignore you. (Development isn’t about meeting your needs; it’s really about meeting your donor’s needs.)
In an effort to help our colleague, we asked him why he was so committed to the school. We knew he had wired his first annual gift from Europe the year after he graduated. We asked him why he had chosen to work at his alma mater. We asked what motivated him to ensure the school’s financial future and why was he so committed to having his own kids attend the school? We encouraged him to tell his story.
This was a pretty uncomfortable conversation. But he ended up writing an amazingly moving letter, even though it was totally out of his comfort zone. And we raised more money than we had ever raised at the end of the year. You know you’ve written an effective appeal when people put notes in with their checks telling you that they were crying as they read the letter. People wrote to tell us how his story reminded them this school had impacted their lives and their kids’ lives and how that also moved them to give.
So, before you send out a letter or make a solicitation, take a moment to put yourself in their shoes by asking yourself, “How would I feel if I didn’t work in the development office and I was approached in this way?”
Some direct mail research seems to indicate that if you don’t have a return address on the envelope people will open it because they don’t want to miss out on something. One organization that practices this method crafted an entire campaign around the theme “Credit Denied.” The idea behind it was to share the story of a family that needed financial help and couldn’t get it—their credit was denied—but this organization was able to help them. Everyone in the organization was moved by this theme, the story of this family, and how well it tied in with their mission. “CREDIT DENIED” became their battle cry.
So they printed the outside of the envelopes with big red letters “Credit Denied!” Apparently no one thought about what it would be like to get such a letter in their mail box. When people went to their mailbox and found a letter with “Credit Denied” stamped on it, they definitely opened it. When they found out it was a fundraising appeal, they got ticked off before they even were able to read the terrific story! When my colleague shared this with me on a CharityChannel.com listserv, there were comments from people on the list who cut the organization out of their regular donations because of that very mailing! They still remembered their shock and anger years later!
It seemed like a good idea—and it even made sense from an organizational perspective. But the tagline on the envelope scared people about their own credit so much they weren’t even interested in reading an appeal.
I like to remind clients that their organization is not the center of their donor’s universe. As board members and employees, much of our lives revolve around our cause. But our donors have lives of their own. Things that are self evident to us are not necessarily self-evident to them.
It’s easy to get so consumed with reaching our goals and coming up with catchy ideas that we don’t take the time to think about what others will see when they receive our material. Just taking a few minutes to think about the people you’re trying to reach, to put yourself in their shoes, can save you from myopically doing more damage than good with your appeals.
Conversational or Scripted?
What is the number one reason why people don’t give? It’s simply that we don’t ask.
While I’m not exactly the biggest proponent of phone-a-thons themselves, I’ve had to run them from time-to-time. (Personally, I don’t like taking their calls, so why would I want to do it to anyone else?) If you have ever participated in a phonathon, you usually have a script when you make the calls. I’ve heard college graduates reading these scripts in a way that sounds like a first time reader or some bad Saturday Night Live skit. “Hi … my…name is… Marc … I’m calling on be-half of …”
Put yourself in the donor’s shoes. If you’re on the other end of the phone, you know if you’re having a script read to you. The people trying to motivate you to give simply sound unprofessional. This is particularly bad if you represent an educational institution. Would you rather give to someone who is conversational rather than scripted? Why not help phone-a-thon participants sound like friends when you’re talking with them? I like scripting out conversations, but why not have the few key points bulleted out so callers can quickly return to them?
Comfortable in Your Own Shoes
While it may behoove you to spend a good portion of your time in the planning phases of a fund raising campaign to put yourself in the shoes of others, it’s also good to get comfortable in your own shoes. You have to realize the task at hand is asking people to commit money to your cause. At some point, you have to face your fear and insecurities.
If you have been involved in fund raising for 30 days or 30 years, think about the times you were afraid. Fear is your imagination going on the dark side and thinking about all the things that could go wrong. Usually, the things you were afraid of never happened any way. You could even bless someone by asking them to give and helping them allocate their resources for something that will really empower them. The positives far outweigh the negatives when it comes to giving people an opportunity to do something worthwhile with their money.
In order to get comfortable with what you are doing, you have to begin with this question: Why are you asking for money? Are you doing it to change a kid’s life? To change your community? There could be a thousand reasons why you are asking for money—and why you believe in the cause that you are leading. Knowing that you are going to be contributing to something you believe in helps you gain the confidence you need to ask people invest with you. As you enter into this process you still might be afraid, but at least you know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
What is the worst that could happen? They could say “no.” That’s about it. They’re not going to die on you. Often. (Refer back to the chapter on “Love” for a story of when this happened to me.)
What if the donor immediately gives you exactly what you ask for? I’ve heard of a fund raiser who asked for $1,000—and the donor wrote out the check and didn’t even think about it. Instead of taking the check, this fund raiser was so comfortable in his own shoes. He handed it back to the man and said, “We didn’t ask for enough. We don’t want to be one of your throwaway charities. We want to be on your top 10 list.” That spoke volumes to this businessman because he knew they weren’t just glad-handing and that they were serious about what they did with his money.
Giving the check back may not be the wisest thing. But if you’re comfortable enough with yourself, you may decide to apply the YMCA principle. The YMCA Principle is simply this: when you get someone to commit to giving $500, you ask them if they would be willing to give that same amount for each of the next three years. Suddenly, the $500 gift turned into a $1,500 gift and you don’t have to go back to that person asking for money each year.
So as you go through the REAL process of asking for money, remember to P.Y.I.T.S.—put yourself in their shoes. If you wouldn’t like receiving what you’re about to give, chances are the other person won’t either. So change your approach.
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