Empathy is the Pathway to Your Why

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by Clare Jordan

Much of our campaign work starts with crafting a compelling case for support. Critical to establishing a strong premise for the case is knowing the campaign’s “why.” But how do we get to your why?

The best pathway to determining the root of your “why” requires taking a journey of empathy.

Empathy is at the core of good donor relations and is essential to understanding why people give as much as why the mission exists. The often-used phrase that sums it up best is this: “People don’t give to you because of your mission, they give to you because of theirs.”

What does empathy have to do with giving?

According to Psychology Today, empathy is “the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another.”

A Harvard Business Review post last year, “Good Leadership Is About Communicating ‘Why,'” stated: “Answering why is an act of empathy and adds a layer of persuasion to your communications. When people know why they’re being asked to do something, they’re much more likely to do it.”

But what do we mean by “empathy” in regards to giving? There are three kinds of empathy:

1.Cognitive: knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking (sometimes called perspective-taking)

2.Emotional: feeling physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious

3.Compassionate: not only understanding a person’s predicament and feeling with them, but being spontaneously moved to help, if needed

It is this third type of empathy where I think philanthropy lives: being so moved by another’s needs that we are motivated to act, compelled and inspired to help.

How can you present a case with that kind of motivation?

One of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, said it this way: “Empathy is not connecting to an experience. Empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.”

Hubspot recently posted, “5 Elements of a Compelling Nonprofit Story,” suggesting that, “A good story puts a face behind your mission by describing not just what your organization does, but why you do it. This creates the emotional responses that trigger your audience to take action.”

The authors recommend including the following five story elements to bring like-minded individuals together to rally around your cause and the change you want to create:

1.Share a relatable character

2.Show emotion

3.State the problem

4.Offer a solution

5.Give a call to action

Those story elements offer a good structure for an empathy-driven case for support.

How do you tell the story?

A Bloomerang post shared early in the pandemic, “How to Include Relevancy and Urgency in Your Fundraising Appeal,” offers a good way to consider your starting point:

1.Relevancy: For every nonprofit, there’s something about what’s going on in the world right now that directly impacts your work. This is your relevancy.

2.Urgency: Add to that revelation your most pressing problem. That is your urgency.

“The good news is folks want to help. They’re genuinely looking for opportunities to make the world a better place,” the article states. Because we know that people give emotionally; not rationally, the words of Tom Ahern, professional fundraising copywriter, say it well:

“Stories sell. Statistics tell.
Stories are for everyone. Statistics are for specialists.
Stories need no translation. Statistics do.”

In this piece, Bloomerang recommends the following:

Save the statistics for your thank-you letter, newsletter, and annual report.

oThis reinforces donors’ decisions to give to your cause.

oIt also shows impact, which encourages additional giving.

Let your appeals focus on a relevant story that is easy to visualize, shared with emotion.

Show donors the dangers of inaction so that they are compelled to act. Author, Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, said “Fear of loss weighs heavier on people than hope of gain.”

Become a “philanthropy facilitator,” thinking from a perspective of generosity.

If I were writing your case for support, the first element I would seek is a good main character. Who in your organization best tells your story for you? Just think of your favorite novel. The best characters make for a compelling read, the kind that inspires people to act.

Genuine empathy is the true heart of philanthropy.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Advancing Philanthropy recently included an article, “Motivation and Inspiration: Empathy Is the Heart of Fundraising” which stated: “The common thread I see among successful fundraisers isn’t their technical knowledge. It’s their ability to empathize and truly care about their donors. True empathy can’t be faked; people can feel if it’s real.”

What makes the best fundraiser? A genuinely caring person, committed to their cause, who truly gets to know donors and tells a good story. Those fundraisers care not only about the “why” of the missions and the lives they serve but concern themselves just as much with the power of philanthropy to transform the lives of the philanthropists doing the giving too!

So when we talk with prospective donors on behalf of our clients, we are speaking with them not just about this one project or even this one nonprofit organization; if we are really good, and truly empathetic toward the donor, we are having a two-way conversation with them about their philanthropy – their giving, its impact, and their legacy – as a whole. And that is the true pathway to the “why.” 

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