Have you hit anyone up this week? Have you twisted arms? Have you called in the big guns to help you lean on your best targets?
This is, after all, the height of the fundraising season, and you need their money to make your fundraising goals.
Did those words make you cringe?
I sure hope so. Because if they didn’t, then you’ve got some serious work to do to reshape the way you think about fundraising.
When done right, fundraising encourages and fuels a passion to help and to give in both the solicitor and the donor. But words like the ones above, which evoke force and violence, disrespect the essence of the exchange.
Last week I got an email from a friend saying “I’d like to hit you up for a donation to my cause.” Hit me up? That soured my inclination to give.
I’m sure that if I were to tell my friend that his language turned me off, he’d tell me that of course he didn’t really want to “hit me up.” It was just a common turn of phrase.
He’s right. My friend’s language is all too common!
Fundraising language that sets a disrespectful tone is rampant. You hear it among board members and volunteers and staff members of all kinds.
The Words We Use Matter
The way we talk about fundraising shapes the way we think about and approach donors. Our language sets up a mindset that, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, shifts donor conversations.
The research is clear. Words and metaphors predispose the way people behave. In his new book, Pre-Suasion, Robert Cialdini documents the power of pre-cursor experiences to shape outcomes. “The best persuaders,” he writes, “arrange for recipients to be receptive to the message before they encounter it.”
It’s no wonder that so many donors are hesitant to meet with solicitors when the way we think about asking is loaded with words of pressure and force.
It’s not surprising that board members don’t want to twist their friends’ arms and get them to give ’til it hurts.
It’s time we adopt a positive language of fundraising that reflects the remarkable nature of the philanthropic exchange. There’s too much at stake to continue acting as if the language of “hitting people up” is okay.
Fundraising Language Based on Shared Values
You probably find it difficult to correct people when they use negative fundraising language. The natural response is to wink and nod, and let the offending phrase or word go without a comment.
To solve the problem of negative fundraising language, we’ve got to address it at a higher level. We must develop a shared understanding of the core values that underlie great fundraising.
At its best, fundraising serves as a bridge between generous individuals and the needs of the people our organizations serve. To quote my colleague Richard Perry of Veritus Group, “Fulfilling a donor’s passions and interests” is at least as important as the money raised.
If people at every level of our organizations understand and embrace those values, the hit ‘em up, twist-their-arms language will be replaced by words and phrases that respect donors and do justice to the field.
We will use words like partner, engage, connect, consider, and commit. We will inspire and motivate donors to make a difference rather than targeting and pushing them to fill our coffers.
Creating a fundraising culture based on a set of understood and accepted values is not a simple task. But even starting conversations about fundraising values will be a giant step forward in creating a constructive, shared language of fundraising. And that will help bring out the best in everyone.
Note: I asked many of my colleagues for their pet peeves about the language of fundraising. Their ideas helped shape this article. They also told me of their frustration with the deadening bureaucratic language people use to describe what their organizations do and the misleading words we use to describe various kinds of fundraising. Stay tuned. More to come!
My thanks to Claire Axelrad, Tom Ahern, Simone Joyaux, Gail Perry, Marc Pitman, Andy Robinson, Pamela Grow, Paula Peter, Gail Meltzer, Kathleen Loehr, Chris Lytle, Amy Eisenstein, Jeff Schreifels, and Richard Perry for their speedy responses and wonderful insights.
Andrea Kihlstedt is the author of four books on fundraising. She is president of Capital Campaign Masters, providing online resources to help organizations get ready for capital campaigns.