Theme vs. Case for Support

Marketing themes are a good way to shine a light on one area of impact. But do they always work in fundraising?

When you think about the golden rule of fundraising—putting the donor first—you begin to see the limitations of an organization-driven theme.

Fundraisers are in a tough spot here. Your CMO asks you to fold your shiny new theme into your fundraising appeals. But if it’s not what donors want to hear, results dip and money is wasted.

A conservationist group we work with met this challenge the right way. Every three months, the organization focuses on one piece of their work and run stories, articles and guided hikes around issues like farmland loss and stream habitats.

The development team goes out of their way to understand each theme. Rather than plugging its talking points directly into their fundraising copy, they figure out how to adapt each theme for their supporters.

A few months ago, their spring awareness campaign centered on the life-giving power of water on natural landscapes. The fundraising team focused their renewal drive on a single property where they were restoring a vast area of damaged marshland. Suddenly, the message had urgency, focus and a tangible outcome without losing sight of the larger issue of water. Everyone got what they wanted, especially their donors.

So the answer is no, marketing themes don’t always work in fundraising. But because you know your donors better than anyone else, you can always make them work.


Spring Clean Your Creative

Now is a great time to put your fundraising creative on the table, sweep away the cobwebs and polish up the diamonds.

Carving out some time for a creative review is how you grow as a fundraiser. You often end up doing more than tuning up your winners and retiring flagging workhorses. A concentrated burst of critical thinking also pushes up new ideas and arguments that go on to energize your entire organization.

Before you get started, remember to switch bodies with your target donor and judge everything you read, watch and feel through their eyes. This is never about you.

Motivation. Are you still reflecting the true reasons people support your work? Five years ago, most people probably saw your cause differently. Are you accounting for their changing perceptions and how they impact someone’s motivation for giving?

Brand. All organizations are fluid and their personalities change over time. Do you still sound like you? Not the 2015 model. But the relevant, contemporary 2016 version.

Impact. When you show donors what their generosity can achieve, make sure your examples are current.

Attitude. Most creative executions pass through a review committee. Over time, the revisions of the group undo the craft of the individual writer who gave your message the right attitude and credibility. As you refresh your creative, be sure to bring back your passion or conviction or whatever qualities your donors love you for.

Tactics. Running a matching gift offer for the fifth year in a row? Promoting the same member benefits as last year? Doing the same thing over and over isn’t compelling. Test something new.

Above all, be ruthless. If someone says: “But we’ve always done it this way,” politely remind them that your donors don’t care. All they want from your creative is to feel powerful through you. Everything else is just fluff.



Just Add Grit


Case studies, testimonials, survivor stories … whatever you call them, these forms of communication work well in fundraising. But only if they’re credible. Dress them up too nicely in your brand, and the skeptic in all of us starts to shrug and stop believing.

To make stories sound real, I try to get as close to the original account as possible. I talk to the people involved. I record them to capture their phrases and word choices. I ask them the kinds of questions I think a donor would ask. Even the awkward ones.

Digging deeper gives me a huge amount of content, and much of it seems irrelevant at first. My advice to anyone gathering content for fundraising is never scrap anything until you’re ready to actually brief your writer or write it yourself. Because contained within this secondary content, you’ll find personal asides, clunky expressions, and all the little bits of grit and humanity that tell someone that this person is indeed real.

To the untrained eye, these extra flourishes seem too much. In your eagerness to trim content down to the bare bones, you may end up with heartless copy. It reads well. It says all the right things. But it doesn’t get results because it just sounds phony. Kind of like those rehearsed moments when a politician pauses and says solemnly: “Consider the Watsons, a middle class family from…”

So may I make a request? Before you cut copy or ask your writer to make your stories sound more uplifting and inspiring, remember that life isn’t like that. Donors are always going to appreciate honesty in story telling, warts and all.