Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Appealing to Donors: "Think Small"

A New York Times op-ed piece last December by the social scientist Arthur C. Brooks made an impression on me. Entitled: "To Make the World Better - Think Small"  he argues that we are so  bombarded by reports  of various events where the main news is presented as a statistic - "50,000 homeless in earthquake-torn ________", "Hundreds of thousands without power in snowbound Northeast" that we lose sight of the real story - the human one. He cites the term coined by social psychologists: "psychic numbing." We  become inured to core meanings by the emphasis on numbers.

The antidote to psychic numbing he suggests is to think small. He  references an old fundraising axiom: "One is greater than one million." We know that is true by the humanization of disasters through photography - a firefighter carrying a small child out of burning building, a 5 year old   Syrian refugee boy's body washed up on a Greek beach. These images make up the difference between a statistic and a human story. They inspire the viewer to action.

Bringing this concept down to everyday nonprofit fundraising, too often I find appeals for funds,  publicly or privately made, are number-oriented. "We had 000,000s visitors, 000s schoolkids in classes." A cynic might  say "so what?" but that's not fair to the nonprofit staffs and boards who are proud of  the organization's public draw and have reason to crow about it. But think how much more effective the appeal would be if it had a human story attached to it.

I have been impressed by TV ads from  New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City where former patients give personal testimony about  the hospital's healing and care. These are testimonials with impact. Smart politicians know the power of personal stories. There has hardly been a State of the Union speech where the president doesn't recognize an invited guest in the Gallery - a wounded veteran, an heroic policeman, a child who has recovered from cancer - and speaks to why they are present. During campaign seasons, candidates never fail to call out personal anecdotes about constituents, recognizing them if they are present or reading aloud from their heartfelt letters.

Some nonprofits have an easier time mining sources of personal testimony. Social service agencies, and hospitals come to mind because their work has a demonstrable effect on people or, in the case of the ASPCA, animals. Museums and performing arts organizations have to be more creative.

Where I have seen success there is in profiling donors and their motivations for giving in order to find common ground with others for focused philanthropy. Mr and Mrs. X explain in personal terms why they have made a bequest to museum Y. The viewer/reader might respond: why yes, I feel the same way and if this couple found it rewarding, why wouldn't we? (The described rewards might also include reference to tax benefits).

So "think small." Find and celebrate stories with heart. And, in fashioning an appeal, remember what the English novelist E.M. Forster wrote in Howard's End: "Only connect! ... only connect the prose and passion and both will be exalted."

Comments on this post and others in my blog, are always welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com.
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