guidestarblog_header.png

Tom Ahern

Recent Posts by Tom Ahern:

The Closely Held Secret to Communicating with Your Donors

Communicating with donors consists of just three basic activities, as I explain in my new book What Your Donors Want ... and Why!


Five Ways to Keep a Donor’s Eyes Glued to What You Write

If you as a fundraiser are disappointed with the results of your writing, here’s one thing I can promise. You could be doing much better. There’s only one thing standing in your way.

You.


Using Stories for Fundraising

Which approach raises the most funds:

  1. A well-argued appeal that explains the problem and offers statistical proof, or
  2. An emotional appeal that tells a sad story?

In short, which is better?

Answer: stories

Here's Professor Paul J. Zak writing in the Harvard Business Review, in an October 28, 2014, article titled, "Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling":

"Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense—they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. ...

"By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis." [Oxytocin is a neurochemical that motivates us to cooperate.] "Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative."

Stories do that, statistics don't, as I explain in my books How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money and Seeing Through a Donor's Eyes.

The whole "statistics vs. stories" debate is pointless, according to the laboratory. And yet it's harder to kill than an urban legend. I guess because it all seems so obvious: "Some people like stories. Some people like numbers." Stories, numbers: even-steven.

But even-steven is not true.

Correctly, it should be stated: "ALL people like stories"—there's feel-good neurochemistry involved after all—"and a few people like numbers, too." That's the brain's true state. Storytelling is universal. It has been more important to human evolution than opposable thumbs, as Lisa Cron points out in her excellent book, Wired for Story.

Story: it is how we learn most of what we know.

In three words: 1) emotions 2) totally 3) rule.

In a contest between two competent appeals for the same charity, one well-reasoned vs. one packed with emotional hooks ... well, it's not even a contest, really. The emotional appeal will outperform the rational appeal by many multiples. Every time.

Why? The human brain's hard-wiring.

With the advent of Functional MRIs and other investigative tools in the late 20th century, neuroscientists were finally able to directly observe a phenomenon they'd suspected for more than a century: the dominance of emotion in human decision making. The discovery would come as a shock.

As USC neuroscientist Dr. Antoine Bechara sums it up, "[T]here is a popular notion, which most of us learn from early on in life, that logical, rational calculation forms the basis of sound decisions. Many people say, 'emotion has no IQ'; emotion can only cloud the mind and interfere with good judgment. But ... these notions [are] wrong and [have] no scientific basis." Instead, "decision-making is a process guided by emotions."

As the New York Times reported back in 2007, "A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control."

Making a gift to charity is a decision to act: a purchase decision prompted by empathy, desire, pleasure, anger, a host of other emotions; psychologists have delineated more than 100 states in the human emotional pantry.

Action is what we want.

But trying to cause action using reason is banging on the wrong door.

Top neurological researcher Donald B. Calne explains: "The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions."

In other words, your reasoning might get me thinking. But it's your ability to touch my emotions that gets me giving. That's why you always lead with emotion in appeals and follow with reason; not the reverse.

Tina Cincotti summed up the science nicely. "People act because you moved them emotionally—you made them feel something. MRIs show that it's our brain's emotional nerve center that gets activated first. It's not a rational, logical process where we weigh costs against benefits and make an informed decision. Your brain gets involved later, largely as a rubber stamp to make sure you don't do anything too wacky! But it starts with the heart. If you're not hitting your donors on an emotional level, then you're not raising as much money as you could."

The last word goes to Paul Slovic, a prominent psychologist. His research into "psychic numbing" found that big numbers tend to reduce response. Not as many act.

Slovic wrote, "Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are 'one of many. ...'"

As to why, Slovic concluded, "The reported numbers of deaths represent dry statistics, 'human beings with the tears dried off,' that fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action."

When you communicate with individual donors—whether it's in your appeals, newsletters, website, e-mails, Facebook postings—it's not accurate to say that statistics are poison. But it's close.

Tom Ahern
© Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Tom Ahern is author of Making Money with Donor Newsletters, Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes, and How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money.


Offers Wanted (in Donor Newsletters)

Excerpted from Making Money with Donor Newsletters

Sprinkle offers across your newsletter. Offers give your donors new things to do.

Like discover: "What's it really like to be desperately poor? Sign up for our Poverty Simulation. See for yourself why it's so hard to break the cycle." (Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte, N.C., makes this offer.)

Like grow: "You can be the mentor that changes a child's life."

Like contribute in a new way: "Join us in this special campaign to. ..."

The dictionary defines an offer this way: "to present something for someone to accept or reject." Here are some common charity offers:

  • Subscribe to an e-mailed newsletter. "Stay fully up to date, with our FREE ..."
  • "You're invited" to a celebration
  • "You're invited" to an exclusive presentation: "A handful of people will receive my personal invitation to this revealing look at ..."
  • "You're invited" to a behind-the-scenes tour
  • Discounts "if you act now." (Everyone loves a bargain. It's the "greed" emotional trigger at work.)
  • Membership ("Your family membership entitles you to unlimited visits ...")
  • Special member-only previews
  • In an e-mail: "View this wonderful, new video ..."
  • Promoting planned giving: "Receive your free, informative brochure about charitable bequests ... and see how endowed funds can perpetuate your values forever."
  • Challenge or matching gift campaigns
  • "Become a monthly donor and ..."
  • Naming opportunities in capital campaigns
  • Exclusive updates from the CEO: "There is a special group of people I make sure I contact at least four times a year ... and you're in that group." (Remember the chapter on flattery?)
  • An invitation to join an exclusive society, such as the President's Circle (ditto, the flattery thing)

Offers in Newsletters: Stirring the Donor Pot

Successful donor newsletters include offers in every issue for three reasons:

  • Offers help strengthen your bond with that fraction of donors (10-30 percent, maybe more?) who are "truly true believers" and might want to become more involved (like, say, volunteer or take a tour).
  • Offers create a feedback channel so donors can tell you how much they like you. (Most charities? Stay humble. I've read the research: donors are far more skeptical of your effectiveness than you assume. They think you're inefficient. They think you waste money. You're guilty until proven innocent in most donors' mind.)
  • Offers can seriously boost philanthropic revenue. Not every donor supports you just once annually. Some will make multiple gifts a year, but you have to ask, in your newsletter.

Buried Offers = Low-to-No Response

If you were omniscient and a skilled communicator ... and you could see tens of thousands of nonprofit newsletters at one time ... you'd soon detect a self-defeating habit.

Omniscient, you'd quickly notice that more than 95 percent of the offers in nonprofit newsletters are made at the end of an article; an article, research shows, that very few will read in depth.

I call it the "buried offer" habit. The typical formulation: "For more information, call or e-mail ..."

But is anyone listening by that point, at the end of an article? Maybe 10 percent at best? (And research says I'm being unrealistically generous.)

Assume that no one reads your articles. Treat every offer like a little ad. Make sure your offers are easy to spot and jump off the page, visually.

Road to Rewards: Change Your Response Device from Passive to Interactive

Interactivity has its rewards, as every top-tier marketer knows. Interactive in this discussion means you give your target audience a way to tell you what they think of you.

What follows: a true-life demonstration of the gains made when a charity changed its response experience from passive to interactive.

In 2009, WPBT2, the public broadcaster in South Florida, sent out its annual appeal to current donors.

The reply device included the common "giving string"—a series of amounts the donor could choose from. The common giving string concludes with a fill-in-the-blank option labeled something like "other."

Not this time. This time, on the WPBT2 reply device, instead of "other," it said, "Surprise us!" And a big, blue circle surrounded that option, drawing the eye.

That one change in the giving string—from "other" to "surprise us"—had an extraordinary effect.

Given the opportunity to express their love of WPBT2—customarily one of the 10-most watched public television stations in the United States—donors responded lustily: the average annual gift increased by almost 20 percent.

What had happened?

  • By adding "surprise us," WPBT2 made its otherwise generic (hence banal) reply device into something exciting and interactive.
  • By adding "surprise us," WPBT2 invited its current donors to demonstrate exactly how much they loved the programming, through the size of their gifts. And the target audience savored the opportunity.


Other Excerpts from This Book

 
Tom Ahern

© 2013, Tom Ahern. Excerpted from Making Money with Donor Newsletters. Excerpted with permission.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America's top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999. Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the United States, Canada, and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful. His consulting practice, Ahern Donor Communications, Ink, specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide.


The Questions I'm Most Often Asked About Donor Communications

I speak to thousands of fundraisers every year, at conferences around the world. And the question I hear most often is a plea for help: "How do I convince my boss?"

Fundraisers might well be the most second-guessed professionals in the world.

I wasn't at all surprised by the 2013 Underdeveloped study that found "many nonprofits are stuck in a vicious cycle that threatens their ability to raise the resources they need to succeed." A joint project of CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Hass, Jr. Fund, Underdeveloped found that about half of development directors in the United States longed to find another job and about half of executive directors wanted to find another development director. Houston, we have a problem.

What we have here is a deep and abiding lack of trust. And where's that lack of trust obvious? I see it in the weeds, among the tiny tactics that make or break success in donor communications.

I explain, for instance, why a P.S. at the end of a direct mail appeal is a good thing (you'll find more about this and other matters I touch on here in my books, How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money and Making Money with Donor Newsletters). We talk about Dr. Siegfried Vögele and his eye-motion studies. I quote Vögele's insight about the P.S. being the real first paragraph of an appeal letter.

A hand in the audience goes up. "My boss says a P.S. is undignified. He won't sign any appeal with a P.S. What can I do?" the fundraiser asks.

I don't have an answer for that most common of questions.

I explain how to check direct mail letters and newsletters for grade level, using the Flesch-Kincaid scales built into Microsoft Word. We talk about Rudolf Flesch and his contributions to modern English. I recommend keeping direct mail appeals to the 7th-grade level or below.

And a hand goes up. "My boss says that's talking down to people. He wants me to write at the 12th-grade level. How can I convince him?"

I further explain that grade level has nothing to do with the education of the reader. That it only has to do with the speed at which people can process your prose. Page-turning crime novels score at the 4th-grade level. Professionally written direct mail scores at the 6th-grade level. And the only things that score at the 12th-grade level are insurance policies and academic research.

"But how can I convince him?" she begs again.

I'm clueless. I don't know how you convince willful and ignorant bosses to stop imposing their uninformed opinions.

I explain why pictures of sad kids raise 50 percent more money than pictures of happy or neutral kids, a finding of the American Marketing Association.

Another hand goes up. "My boss only wants pictures of smiling kids. She says smiling kids show we're succeeding. She also doesn't want us to exploit the suffering of those kids. So, do you have any other proof?"

Other proof? Well, I could probably find some more, if I cared to. I'd start with psychologist Dan Ariely's fascinating work and see where that took me. I could rummage through the pioneering work of neuroscientists Antoine Bechara and Antonio Damasio. I'm sure they'd have some supporting evidence.

But why bother? I will never overturn a resolutely held position of ignorance. Ignorance is solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Bosses who think sad photos exploit children in need will never accept the psychological truth that unless a donor feels empathy (triggered immediately by a sad photo), she is unlikely to make a gift.

I explain why longer acquisition letters tend to outperform shorter letters.

Another hand shoots up right away. "My boss insists I write only one-page letters. He says nobody these days reads long letters. What can I tell him?" Tell him that when you asked this question, I curled up into a fetal ball on the floor and refused to go on.

What I actually say is this: "I doubt you can tell him anything that will change his mind. But you can quote me: he is making at least two mistakes that could prove fatal to your results.

"First, he clearly has no exposure to what does and does not work in direct mail. If he were to poll in 2014 some of the most successful direct mail fundraising firms in the world—Pareto in Australia, Bluefrog in the U.K., Stephen Thomas in Canada, Mal Warwick or TrueSense in the U.S.—he would discover that four-page acquisition letters are pretty much the default. Not because these firms are stuck in the past, but because they test different formats all the time—and the four-page letter remains the workhorse, bringing in the largest numbers of new gifts.

"Second, he should know that his personal opinion about a highly technical matter like this is ignorance squared. Not only does he not know what the facts really are ... worse, he thinks his personal opinion is representative of everyone's opinion. That's a logic flaw of the first order."

I now have about 8,500 subscribers to my "tips" e-newsletter. About a year ago, I asked my subscribers, mostly fundraisers, to tell me what kinds of questions came up about donor communications.

I was flooded with cries for help.

Typical was this: "We showed a board member our new appeal. It opens with a one-word paragraph. She objected, 'Is this how we represent our organization, as the grammatically incorrect organization?'"

Sigh.

I long ago came to this conclusion: no one but the chief fundraiser should approve donor communications. The untrained can only mess things up and reduce the potential for giving. One of the first lessons I learned in my own consulting career was this: Fire resistant clients quickly because you simply cannot help them.


Tom Ahern
© 2014, Emerson & Church, Publishers

Tom Ahern is author of Seeing Through a Donor's Eyes, Making Money with Donor Newsletters, and How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money.


Most People Skim. Few Read Deep.

Excerpted from Making Money with Donor Newsletters


The "Gillette Miracle"—How a Hospital Foundation Increased Giving to Its Newsletter by 1,000 Percent

Excerpted from Making Money with Donor Newsletters

I gave a workshop on newsletters.

People from Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Minnesota, attended. Their donor newsletter, mailed quarterly to 20,000 people at that point, racked up an annual net loss of $40,000. Was there a better way, they wondered?

Something amazing happened post-workshop: giving to Gillette's newsletter increased 1,000 percent (not a misprint), after a few changes.

The old way, the foundation received about $5,000 in gifts per issue.

The new way, the foundation received about $50,000 in gifts per issue.

OMG.

What Changed

Exactly which details did Gillette choose to change in its newsletter? Here's the short list:

  • They made the donor the obvious hero. Gillette pushed donor-centricity to an extreme I've never encountered before or since. They thanked the donor copiously and obviously, in the big type (i.e., the headlines). They gave the donor credit without stint.
  • They switched from rational content to emotional content, from coverage of technology and skills (the stuff that naturally fascinated the staff and defined the hospital's brand) to stories about kids getting better (the primary thing donors care about). Please note: Gillette still gets to talk plenty about its amazing medicine, but the medicine plays a supporting role in a dramatic story about a child's recovery.
  • They made it personal. The most powerful word in marketing, the word "you," never took top billing in the old version (if it appeared at all). In the new version, the word "you" is used with gusto, especially in high-visibility locations like headlines. It has become the pronoun of choice.
  • They made it shorter. The old newsletter was eight pages long and text heavy. Now it's four pages long. Gillette also trimmed its articles. Lead articles used to average 1,200 words. Now they average 500 words.
  • It had been a self-mailer. Now it's sent in a special envelope that says, in effect, "Your donor newsletter is enclosed. Thank you for your support!"
  • They went to full-color throughout. The new design is much looser and fun. It crackles with visual energy and joy. It replaces an older design treatment that was mostly two-color and a bit dowdy.

By the way, despite enhancements like mailing the newsletter in an envelope bearing a live stamp along with a personalized cover letter and reply device, the new version, at half the length, costs no more than the old version.

In September 2009, Gillette's Angela Lindell and Andrew Olsen, CFRE, both key players in the makeover, published a frank, detailed article (you can Google it) about their newsletter's transformation. It appeared in the Direct Marketing Association Journal. The title: "Cutting Your Print Newsletter? Think Again! How We Transformed Ours Into a Moneymaker."

A thorough review of [the old newsletter] quickly revealed a fundamental problem. We were telling the stories that made our organization look important—not the stories that made our donors feel important. We helped children walk. We opened new clinics. We conducted successful fundraising programs. We did amazing things!

But all of our incredible accomplishments left the reader with a nagging question: "If you're doing so great, why do you need me?"

Angela and Andrew's article distilled their magic down to just three "simple—but incredibly important—things" that donors must hear from a newsletter:

  • "You matter." Show your donors they're essential to your mission. Reframe your accomplishments as their accomplishments. ("Because of You, Douglas Can Visit an Imaging Center Without Crying!")
  • "You have invested wisely." Prove that your organization is worthy of an investment.
  • "We still need you!" Share new needs, opportunities and goals. Even when telling an amazing success story, leave your donors craving another interaction with you. ("Help Us Change More Lives.")

Read Another Excerpt from This Book

Tom Ahern
© Tom Ahern. Excerpted from Making Money with Donor Newsletters. Excerpted with permission.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America's top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999. Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the United States, Canada, and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful. His consulting practice, Ahern Donor Communications, Ink, specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide.


Are You Boring Your Donors? Interview with Master Nonprofit Communicator Tom Ahern

Tom Ahern, author of Seeing Through a Donor's Eyes, How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money, and Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, recently spoke with his publisher about how to craft more effective donor communications. GuideStar has published excerpts from Mr. Ahern's books (see the links on the right), and we're pleased to be able to share his additional thoughts with you.

You had a bracelet made for your wife, Simone. It won't strike many people as romantic, since the words you put on it were—well, you tell us.

I commissioned a bracelet for Simone that had seven flat links, with one word inscribed on each link. The words: anger, exclusivity, fear, flattery, greed, guilt, salvation. These are the direct mail's industry's "top seven" emotional triggers. Both of us teach these triggers in our workshops. We'd occasionally forget one or two. This seemed like a fun remedy, at least for her.

In Seeing Through a Donor's Eyes, you suggest a simple way—an exercise, really—for how an organization can discover its true importance. Describe it, please.

I ask staff and board to pretend that tonight at midnight your organization suddenly ceases to exist. Tomorrow, when people wake up to your absence, what will they truly miss? What will they regret losing? I use this exercise with boards to get them focused. Messaging is NOT about what insiders think. Effective messaging is about what OUTSIDERS think of you.

You say that most nonprofit communications are boring because they "swaddle themselves in interest-draining veils." What are those veils?

Look, would I rather read something written by a journalist at the Wall Street Journal, or something by a local environmental advocate? The question answers itself. Nine times out of ten the local environmentalist will put me to sleep with data and jargon. To be fair, charities don't usually have professional journalists on staff. So charity prose tends to be dull. It doesn't tell stories well, either. Which is a fatal flaw. The human brain is hard-wired to crave narrative. If you can't tell a good quick story, you won't hook many readers. Period.

What I gather from your books is that most donors, at best, glance at an organization's materials—they don't really read deeply. Considering the time and cost involved, why keep sending them?

I teach a workshop called "Writing for Results." It's about winning new donors and keeping existing donors. The first thing I tell the audience is this: Donor communications are NOT about reading; donor communications are about getting people to ACT on your behalf—either now or later. What does a newsletter do for a charity? It helps retain donors. Not because they read the articles and decide they'll stay, but because you show how you love and need them as they skim the photos and headlines.

In your books, you cite nine flaws that sabotage most nonprofit communications. We don't have time to discuss all nine, but maybe you can describe two or three of the most harmful.

I do a lot of audits, evaluating the "donor readiness" of nonprofit communications. And the big problem is always the same. Charities want to talk about themselves ... how good they are at their work ... how they do their work ... how their people are eminently qualified. They don't often talk about the donor, except as bystander who can be placated with perfunctory thanks. This gravely undercuts the potential of most communications programs.

CEOs need to realize that there are two very different types of communications a nonprofit can produce. You can do 1) "corporate" communications, which are all about how great the organization is. Or you can do 2) "donor" communications, which are all about how great the donor is.

Most nonprofits incorrectly choose #1. It's a bad strategy. Corporate communications raise the LEAST amount of money. DONOR communications raise the MOST, because they flatter the donor rather than try to impress him or her. I watched a hospital improve giving to its donor newsletter 1,000 percent between one issue and the next, to $50,000 in gifts per issue, by simply changing from a corporate communications approach to a donor communications approach.

Like others in fundraising, you talk about the importance of anecdotes. In fact, you claim that almost any complex issue can be—should be, in fact—revealed to donors through an anecdote. Got a good example?

There's this charter school. And like a lot of charter schools, they have an angle, which is using music to teach the ABCs. Sure, they could explain the science and pedagogy behind their method, but they don't. Instead they say this: "We had a mom show up with her 2nd grader. And mom was desperate. Her daughter was already falling behind because something wasn't clicking for her in the classroom. We asked the little girl, 'Honey, would you go to the chalkboard and spell "cat."' She got it wrong: K-A-T. That was a year ago. Flash forward to right now? That same girl can now spell Tchaikovsky." That's an anecdote. And in the course of that anecdote, we got to see the school through its amazing results. It's tempting to explain WHAT you do, because you have all the details at your fingertips. But don't lead with your pedagogy; only insiders care. Your donors care about results. So lead with a quick, illustrative story.

In How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money, you advise all fundraising writers, once they have a draft, to conduct the "You Test." What is that?

The "You Test" is easy in Microsoft Word. Select your text. Then do a "find and replace": replace all your black you's with red you's. When you've done that, you can easily spot the word's presence or absence. Rewrite any passage that is "you-less." Wondering why? The word you is a profound—and unique—emotional trigger as well as a pronoun. Uttering the word you, either in print or vocally, instantly causes the human brain to pay more attention. You is among the 10 most persuasive words available to copywriters in English. Without you, your communications seem distant. With you, they seem personal.

Other than presenting interesting copy, what's the secret to keeping someone reading?

Flatter me. Make me feel important. Make me feel loved. Make me feel good about myself. Make me welcome. Make me feel smart. Surprise me. Delight me. Give me something great to do.

Can someone who's not particularly good at writing measurably increase their skill by reading books like yours? Or is it the case that you either have it or you don't?

In my view, writing to donors successfully is mostly about training. The more training you have, particularly about how the brain works, the less doubt you'll have when pen meets page (and, yes, I handwrite all my first drafts). In that sense, reading books is pretty much a requirement if you want to be any good at the science and art of persuasive writing. But, truly, anyone can learn the skills. Writing to donors isn't like writing novels. It's advertising copywriting, which is straightforward, action-oriented stuff. Copywriting seeks to please and win the customer. Who is our customer? In fundraising, the customer is the donor. Every attempt to communicate with donors should begin with the same question: What do they need—and want —to hear?

OTHER ARTICLES BY TOM AHERN


© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America's top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999. Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the United States, Canada, and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful. His consulting practice, Ahern Communications, Ink, specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide.


The Dance of the Four Veils

Excerpt from Seeing through a Donor's Eyes: How to Make a Persuasive Case for Everything from Your Annual Drive to Your Planned Giving Program to Your Capital Campaign


If You Write It (with Emotion), They Will Give


Excerpt from How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets

Mostly, people give from the heart. The head is a bit player.

We assume just the opposite. In our post-industrial, technologically enhanced world, we worship reason. We believe that reason, our ability to work our way intellectually through problems, sets us apart as a species and yields huge benefits. And it does.

But reason has surprisingly little to do with decision making, neuroscientists now know. (Delicious irony there: science proves that emotion, not reason, controls most choices.)

People don't give to your organization because they've made a coolly calculated decision to support you. They give because you've moved them somehow, sometimes in ways that don't sound all that "charitable." Flattery and greed are important emotional triggers, for instance. But, then, so are hope and joy.

Engage people's emotions and the world is your oyster.

People like to feel things. They like to feel good. They like to feel warm. They like to feel proud. They like to feel they've done something useful and important. They also like to have their anger soothed, their fears relieved. And they'll pay to experience those emotional states, even for a few seconds.

The most profitable direct mail and newsletter programs are those that sustain in donors a constant state of emotional tingle. Consider the abundant use of emotional triggers to be a sort of foreplay. For the donor, writing the check completes the act of love.

Emotional Triggers

I had a bracelet made for my wife, Simone.

She's a fundraising consultant, and teaches a lot. But she was always forgetting one or more of the emotional triggers (they're called "triggers" because, when pulled, an emotional reaction happens).

So, as an easy reminder, I had a bracelet made with the seven top emotional triggers stamped into the stainless steel links. There are many more than seven emotional triggers, mind you. But these seven are revered—nay, worshipped—by the direct mail industry in the United States.

On her wrist Simone wears a bracelet bearing the following words:

  • Anger
  • Exclusivity
  • Fear
  • Flattery
  • Greed
  • Guilt
  • Salvation
If she ever has to go to a hospital, what will people think?

The Kennedy Center Invites You

Let's see how some of these seven emotional triggers work in real life.

The example below is from a notably successful membership invitation mailed by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Results were so spectacular that a major trade magazine wrote up the campaign. Here's what the invitation said in large type, right beneath the logo:
You are hereby invited to become a Member of the Kennedy Center at a full 20% discount and gain the special privilege to purchase advance tickets before the general public to the finest Kennedy Center presentations.
This is a professionally written moneymaker. Let me reveal to you the emotional triggers buried in the author's choice of words:
You are hereby invited [flattery] to become a Member [exclusivity] of the Kennedy Center at a full 20% discount [greed] and gain [greed] the special privilege [exclusivity] to purchase advance tickets before the general public [exclusivity] to the finest [exclusivity] Kennedy Center presentations.
You might quickly conclude from this example: the more emotional triggers, the better. And you'd be right. But notice, too, how focused the triggers are in the Kennedy Center piece. They operate within a pretty narrow range: flattery, exclusivity, greed. They reinforce each other harmoniously, urging the reader toward a purchase decision.

Some emotional triggers lean negative (fear, anger). Some emotional triggers lean positive (hope, compassion). But one thing is certain: there's no shortage to choose from. Researcher W. Gerrod Parrott has isolated 135 different human emotional states, each distinct enough to be instantly recognizable. A choice of emotions that diverse should be more than enough to suit any fundraising occasion.

Tom Ahern, Ahern Communications, Ink.
© 2007, Tom Ahern. Excerpted from How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers. All rights reserved.

Tom Ahern is author of How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets and Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible. An authority on making nonprofit communications consistently effective, he is president of Ahern Communications, Ink., a consultancy specializing in capital campaign materials and other nonprofit communications. He speaks frequently in the United States and Canada on reader psychology, direct mail principles, and good (and not very good) graphic design as applied to fundraising and nonprofit branding.