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It's Not About You

Posted: 9/15/2021

Click here to read on Philanthropy Daily.

By IAIN BERNHOFT

Maybe you experienced this at your Labor Day barbeque.

You strike up a conversation with an apparently affable stranger. Let's call him Tanner. Tanner tells you all about what he does—how he's leveraging new techniques to really impact things positively. You smile and nod.

But Tanner does not stop. He talks about how his strategy is an exciting departure from the status quo; he digressively details the industry he's in; he extemporizes on office life. As minutes turn into eternities, you bravely nod like a fleshly bobblehead, smile painted on your face. Tanner continues . . .

But let's interrupt for a moment. I have a question for you: How long will you listen to someone drone on about themselves before you look for a quick exit?

Not too long, right? What a bore that Tanner is! You and I know that the way to engage interpersonally is by showing curiosity and consideration. You turn the conversation towards the other person—if you want it to continue.

And we certainly know better than to display such clueless self-regard when we're talking to donors or charitable foundations.

Right?

Dear reader, I have bad news for you. Chances are very good your fundraising writing is more like the boorish Tanner than you realize—or care to admit.

PEACOCK FUNDRAISING

You don't believe me. So let's look at the receipts. Go ahead and pull up a few of the emails, letters, or proposals your organization has sent out recently. Do you see sentences like this:

In the past year, we did more good things than ever before. We received attention on fifty-eight major media platforms and our work was cited elsewhere several hundred times more!

Or this:

Our mission is so important right now. So many puppies and kittens need our help. Please give us more money so we can keep on rescuing those adorable furry friends.

We, we, our, our, our, us, we. Every single sentence there is about you and your organization. Your audience, insofar as they feature at all, functions only as an accessory that helps you do more of the things that make you great. (Give US money so that WE can be heroes . . .)

It's peacock fundraising. Spreading your organization's glorious tailfeathers in the sun, then strutting back and forth, back and forth, for the wonderment of all.

You might see some success, but I want to suggest to you that this peacockery is a bad thing. Bad because it ignores your audience, and bad because it hampers your fundraising. You wouldn't tolerate those tailfeathers at a barbeque, and you shouldn't tolerate it in your fundraising.

Remember: People give because they want to do some good in the world. They want the satisfaction of knowing that they're making a difference. And let's face it: people also want to hear about themselves, about what they can do and why it matters. They want to be spoken to, not talked at.

When you focus primarily on what your organization is doing, you are not only hogging the spotlight but also the good that is being done. You are making your organization the hero and erasing the donor from the story.

More generous—not to mention more accurate and more successful—fundraising recognizes that the donor is not merely included in the story but is in fact the hero of the story. After all, if no one was giving money to your nonprofit, it wouldn't amount to a hill of beans.

And when Tanner talks your ear off at the barbeque, your impulse to walk away is checked by the mores of polite society. But your direct-mail readers flipping through the mail in the kitchen live under no such compunction. If you're regaling them with the great deeds and urgent concerns of your organization, they can simply stop reading. And they do.

AVOIDING PEACOCK FUNDRAISING

In order to avoid peacock fundraising, we must recognize not just why it is bad but also why it remains so pervasive. I think there are several reasons we fall into this trap so often, and why writing donor-centric messaging is hard.

  1. It's hard to get—and write—outside of our own heads. I've written about the curse of knowledge before: once you know something, it's hard to imagine what it's like to not know it. But the more general problem is that it's hard to put yourself in another's shoes. Your writing may well seem perfectly interesting and edifying and persuasive to you, and yet not at all speak to the needs or interests or situation of your reader.

    Never forget that your reader knows much less about your organization than you do, cares much less than you do, and in general is much less inclined to hear about you than you are. What do they want to hear about? Themselves—and things that concern them.

  2. It's hard to ask confidently for money. We tend to feel that we must prove our organization to be worthy of funding. Look at the good we're doing! Behold our diligence, intelligence, and honesty! Rest assured that you are funding a deserving organization. Really. That instinct is understandable, but it ignores the psychology of giving. People give not because they think you're great but because they want to do some good. And so you must focus on what they're doing and how their generosity will make a difference. Your organization is the conduit to reaching some good they care about. They really don't care so much about you.

    Think about credit card commercials. They show people frolicking on boats . . . going to ball games . . . having dinner on Santorini. They don't focus on the piece of plastic that makes it happen.

    Apply the same principle to your fundraising: the donor is the credit card owner, and their charitable intent is that dinner on Santorini. Your organization is just the piece of plastic. So don't write appeals and proposals that talk about how lightweight and bendable the plastic is, how effectively the chip transmits financial information, or how reasonably your fees are structured. Connect the donor to Santorini—that is, to the good they will achieve.

  3. It's hard to be generous. Donor-centered fundraising requires you to pass along to the donor all the credit for things you've busted your butt for. And that's difficult! After all, you're the one who has given all you're working (and maybe all your waking) hours to this mission. The donor is just writing a check. Right?

    I may not be a physicist, but this takes me back to Newton's Third Law: For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. For the generosity we seek to elicit, there must be a counter-generosity of you passing all the credit, attention, and love along to the donor. Giving is relational, not transactional.

KILLING THE PEACOCK

So: We've diagnosed the problem with peacock fundraising—which you're most likely doing (to some degree at least) without recognizing it—we've explained why it's bad, identified why it's an easy trap to fall into. For the finale, let's talk briefly about how to eradicate it.

  1. Check your pronouns. Begin (and I'm indebted to Jeff Brooks for this idea) by highlighting all the first-person pronouns and all the second-person pronouns. Tally all the I, me, my, we, us, our, Org name, etc. against the yous. If first person pronouns outnumber second person pronouns, you've got a problem. And you need to start re-writing sentences accordingly.
  1. Make the donor the actor in your sentences. Let's revise our examples from earlier:

    In the past year, YOU did more good things than ever before. Thanks to YOU, ORG received attention on fifty-eight major media platforms. YOUR generosity has ensured that our work was cited elsewhere several hundred times more! And:

    YOUR support of our shared mission is so important right now. So many puppies and kittens need YOUR help. By giving ORG more money YOU will keep on rescuing those adorable furry friends. It's such an easy copyedit to make. Every time you see "With your support, we will . . ." just cross out the "With" and the "we." Your support is the hero of the story.

  1. Thank a lot, give credit a lot. I admit, you can't make the donor the actor in every single sentence. They weren't the ones writing amicus briefs in the latest Supreme Court case, nor were they performing emergency appendectomies in the Amazon with their bare hands. But they supported that work, and helped make it possible. So shout that from the rooftops! Thanks to you . . .With your help . . . Your generosity made possible . . . etc.

    Lastly—and this is the topic for another piece—don't get wrapped up in the weeds of your organization. Don't dunk your donor in a murky pool of policy minutiae, organizational updates, and philosophical ruminations. You are serving the needs of your donor when you show, simply and clearly, what problem your organization exists to solve, how the donor can help or is helping, and why that work matters.

The rest is just peacockery.

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