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How To Balance Doom & Gloom with Happy & Hopeful in Your Fundraising Appeal

I received an important appeal-writing question from newsletter subscriber Miriam.

Miriam writes:

All the fundraising appeal trainings I’ve attended say the best appeals talk about an immediate need, and the more dire it is, the better.

That tenet goes against all our messaging, which is positive and uplifting.

How can I show our need for financial support without making it sound like doom and gloom?

I love this question because it brings up what a fundraising appeal truly is (and is not).

First, let’s back up this bus a bit and talk about the various types of content you regularly publish. Think about your organization's blog, emails, web pages, social media, and printed pieces.

You probably create and share content that…

  • Engages
  • Updates
  • Asks
  • Informs
  • Entertains
  • Showcases
  • Reminds
  • Delights
  • Inspires
  • Builds Trust
  • Rewards
  • Educates
  • Challenges
  • Activates

(I could go on and on, but you get the point.)

Each piece of content you publish serves a specific purpose. And some content covers multiple communications goals.

Fundraising appeals leverage the hard work you’ve put into all your communications. When you send your appeal to existing donors, they have likely consumed some (or many!) of your previous communications.

If you've been stewarding well, by the time donors read your appeal, they already feel good because you have graciously thanked them for their prior gifts and updated them with uplifting impact stories.

So, they are now ready for your fundraising appeal. They are READY and WILLING to solve a problem today.

The question is: Are you going to give them an immediate problem to solve?

Direct Response Fundraising

A fundraising appeal is a unique type of marketing that fits under the category of "direct response."

Direct response fundraising is designed to deliver an offer to get an instant reply by encouraging people to make a financial gift.

Direct response fundraising requires immediate action. After all, you’re not sitting down over coffee with your donor. You don’t have the luxury of time to lay out all the details. You need to create urgency. Without urgency, there will be little response.

Judge Judy tapping her watch as if to tell someone “Hurry up!”

What Some Fundraisers Get Wrong About Appeals

There's a belief that if you simply explain your successes to donors, they’ll want to send you more money to continue that success.

That seems logical, right? Unfortunately, that’s not what works best in direct response. (Fundraising can be counterintuitive!)

There have been hundreds (perhaps thousands) of direct response studies on which approach to take to maximize response. If you rely on the research, you will raise more money.

We know that fundraising appeals work best when they show urgency and what's at stake. (Of course, there are other essential characteristics that I won't be addressing in this post.)

Why Urgency is Essential in a Fundraising Appeal

Donors are not sitting around waiting for your next appeal. They are busy living their lives. To make a gift now, most donors need a reason to act immediately.

Telling donors an uplifting success story and then asking them for more money does not create urgency. It creates a sense of closure that suggests: our job here is done.

The psychology of giving dictates that people would rather help someone who’s in trouble right now than help someone who's already been helped.

Scenario: A kitten is stuck in your neighbor's tree…

As soon as you hear that a kitten is stuck in a neighbor's tree, you'll likely rush over to see if you can help. Lend a ladder? Call a cat rescuer? Talk sweetly to it? You'll want to do something—anything—right away. The situation is urgent!

But if you simply hear that a kitten had been stuck in your neighbor's tree and a cat rescuer saved it, you likely won’t rush over there. Why should you? Someone else already handled the problem.

Fundraising is like that too. Urgency gets people to act now.

But you don't need a life-or-death situation to create urgency.

You can create urgency by...

  • Using a real or artificial deadline
  • Having a match offer
  • Showing how one gift can impact the life of one person
  • Explaining the consequences of not giving now

A few examples:

  • “You now have until September 30 to double your impact to protect our state's public lands from polluters.”
  • “Your $50 gift will bring a cure to childhood cancer one step closer for kids like Taylor.”
  • “Without funding by August 31, students like Peter won't be able to experience the joy of playing an instrument in the school band this fall.”

Smart fundraisers like you figure out a way to work urgency into every single appeal message.

Even though a small number of donors will give no matter what, many more need a compelling reason to give TODAY.

Let’s Talk About Doom and Gloom, Shall We?

Homer Simpson wearing a "The End Is Near" sign and ringing a bell.

You may want to know how to raise money while maintaining your organization's upbeat messaging... and without being so doomy-gloomy.

I get it. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news — or have perceived inconsistencies in their strategic messaging — or give the impression that they’re not doing their job well.

But here's the thing:

Your organization was created to solve a real problem. And, let's face it: real problems aren't positive and uplifting.

But do you know what IS positive and uplifting?

When the donor works alongside you to solve a problem!

See, it isn’t an either/or scenario: either you are doom and gloom or positive and uplifting. No, no, no!

IT'S BOTH… sad and happy… pain and possibilities. It’s yin and yang. One does not exist without the other.

You need to have an empathetic understanding of your donor. You must care about their feelings — yes — and yet, you can’t shy away from the truth.

For the donor to understand that they are the solution to the problem, you need to poke at the pain.

Stay with me here...

An example:

Say you have a sharp, excruciating pain in your shoulder. You go to your doctor. Your doctor walks into the examination room and sees you sitting on the exam table.

Does she glance at you and immediately write a prescription for medication? No! She examines your shoulder and touches the areas where you’re feeling pain.

Your doctor does this not because she wants to hurt you but because she must get you to feel the pain again.

Only then can your doctor understand where it hurts and HELP YOU END THE PAIN.

Many Nonprofits Gloss Over the Pain

They don’t want to upset the donor for fear that they will get mad, complain, and leave.

In copywriting, this is sometimes called the Nice Guy Syndrome.

… Nice guys spread only the good news.

… Nice guys are afraid of the pain.

… Nice guys shield readers from the truth.

But your donor owns the problem, too.

Donors deserve to understand the severity of the problem—TO FEEL THE PAIN—so that they're inclined to take immediate action.

When you neglect to show the need in all its painful rawness… when you avoid stating the consequence of doing nothing… you do your donor a grave disservice.

You treat them as if they can’t handle the truth. (They can!)

So yes, be hopeful... but don’t leave out the pain. Good fundraising writing requires both.

You need to agitate the problem and show the donor the greatness they will release into the world when they make a gift. Both, at the same time.

The good news that you so generously give to donors is that they can be effective in their own philanthropy by solving a problem with their gift.

This is true donor love. 💛


While you're here...

Why not read a little more?

Here are a few blog posts you might like:

1. Do Your Fundraising Stories Give Away the Ending?

2. The 1 Forrest Gump Fundraising Secret You Need

3. 7 Boring Ways to Transform Your Fundraising


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