How to Include Relevancy and Urgency in Your Fundraising Appeal

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by Claire Axelrad

Today I received five fundraising appeals in my mailbox.

It’s that time of year.

I brought them upstairs from my garage and began opening them quickly, searching for those I could easily toss.

It so happened they were all from names I recognized, so I didn’t toss them before bringing them inside the house. That happens a lot too, unless something about the mail package really catches my eye or intrigues me. But the carrier envelope is a subject for another day.

Today I want to talk specifically about assuring your appeal speaks loud and clear to what is top of mind for folks today.

You may be tired of thinking about the pandemic… racial upheaval… the election… threats to democracy… climate change and natural disasters… you name it. You may assume your constituents are tired too. Yet these are the issues in the news. These issues are what people are thinking about. And it’s likely one or more of these issues touches your donor personally.

As much as you’d like to pretend it’s business as usual, it isn’t.

The very air folks are breathing is different. Literally, people are afraid to breathe too freely lest they catch an infectious disease. If they’re exercising freedom of speech and assembly, the air around them may be infused with tear gas. In some parts of the country the sky has been filled with dangerously unhealthy smoke. Other parts of the country have been ravished by high winds and floods. Everywhere people look, danger lurks.

Sending last year’s appeal message won’t cut it.

Are You Naming the Elephant in Your Room?

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

Think about what that one thing is for you. That’s your elephant. Failing to talk about it won’t make it disappear.

With your elephant comes your most pressing problem. Here’s your urgency.

Nonprofits in different sectors will identify different problems. For example:

  • Huge uptick in demand for direct services
  • Surge in need for emergency response
  • Increased need for volunteers
  • Inability to stage live performances from which lion’s share of revenues are derived
  • Inability to offer in-person classroom teaching to fulfill promise to your clients
  • Lack of technology resources to meet current demand for online connection
  • … and many more.

Look at the appeal you’ve already written or are on the verge of writing. Do you:

  1. Name the elephant? This is what makes your appeal relevant.
  2. Explain why what you’ve named is a particular problem right now (i.e., because demand for services is up, revenues are down, or both)? This is what adds urgency in your fundraising appeal.

The Heightened Importance of Relevancy and Urgency in Your Fundraising Appeal

If you fail to name these two things your appeal will fall mostly on deaf ears. There’s a lot of competition for donor dollars right now. Whatever problems existed in the past, today there is a heightened sense of doom and gloom. New problems are stacked atop old problems, to the point it can seem overwhelming.

The good news is folks want to help. They’re genuinely looking for opportunities to make the world a better place. I’ve never had so many people tell me they really want to do something to make a difference. They just aren’t sure where their dollars are best spent. It’s your job to make the case for them to spend them in support of your mission.

People Give Emotionally, Not Rationally.

If you take nothing else away today, take away this: stories draw people in. Stories compel; data repels. Numbers make people put up their dukes to instinctively fight them and prove them wrong. Anything in your appeal that makes folks pause and think too hard is not a good thing.

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

— Tom Ahern, professional fundraising copywriter

Save statistics for your thank you letter, newsletter and annual report. It’s swell to use numbers to reinforce a donor’s decision after they’ve decided to give to you. It’s a great idea to prevent “buyer’s remorse,” offering proof their emotional decision was also a rational one. This will help persuade donors to give again.

For the appeal itself, focus on emotion.

When your appeal speaks to relevance, that’s emotional.

Stories bring the emotion home in ways no dry recitation of the issues can accomplish.

  • 225,000 deaths is impersonal. A story about one person or one family who suffered, especially if they are described in a manner to which the donor can personally relate, can bring a lump to their throat.
  • Percentages of people in one racial or ethnic group who are disproportionately affected by a problem is impersonal. A story about one person who was unfairly or cruelly treated, especially if the donor can imagine they or someone they know being in that situation, will bring a tear to their eye.

These lump and tear-inducing emotions will cause donors to reach for their checkbook.

When there’s urgency in your fundraising appeal, that’s emotional.

Stories bring the urgency to light in ways vague statements cannot. When a prospective donor is confronted with a black-and-white proposition — help or don’t help — there’s nothing vague about the ask; the donor can clearly visualize the cure.

  • “Now more than ever we must act” is such an overused statement it goes unnoticed. “Susi will be out on the streets next month, unless you help” causes the reader to sit up and take notice.

Real urgency in your fundraising appeal can be visualized. And when donors can see the harm that will come if they fail to act, they are moved to avoid the harm. Fear of loss weighs heavier on people than hope of gain. This is important as it causes the donor to think from a perspective of generosity (If I don’t give, children will never be reunited with their parents) rather than greed (If I give, I won’t be able to buy a new painting).

Help your donors emotionally sense the relevance and urgency in your fundraising appeal.

Don’t pretend things are normal when they aren’t.

Donors can handle the truth. They want to help, but need you to describe the current opportunity in compelling terms they can understand.

That’s your job as a philanthropy facilitator.

In my next article I’ll evaluate two of the fundraising appeals I received today, from the perspective of their relevancy and urgency. Stay tuned!

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