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Back To Basics

By Herschell Gordon Lewis - September 17, 2013

When skepticism seems to be a common element in a fundraising campaign to a list of purchased names, the top professional fundraisers are in their element. It’s what they expect, and it’s why proficient fundraisers know how to push the hot buttons … buttons that match the Internet era of informational oversupply.

But when skepticism supplants enthusiasm, there should be concern. Multi-donors disappear. They aren’t dead; they’re just no longer interested.

That means it’s Revival Time.


The three revivers

If you accept a tough reality — all fundraising is competitive with all other fundraising — you also accept basic techniques that propel your proposition to the fore, ahead of the medical and educational and civic and religious competitors who otherwise not only bleed away contributions you might attract but could become your total replacement.

For starters, which of these appeals is most likely to generate a positive response from names on a “cold” list?

  • Can you help us?
  • Will you help us?
  • Will you help these kids?
  • Help me.
  • Help me, PLEASE.

Yes, yes, common nonprofit “wisdom” says the “Help me” appeal is old-fashioned, outdated, and out of sync with 21st century skepticism. That wisdom depends on who is apparently authoring the need. When “Who I am” matches “Who you are,” the recipient is the one whose brain forms the word “Help.”

For those days in which the creative fundraiser just seems to be out of ideas, The Three Revivers can be a … well, a reviver:

  • The First Reviver: Ask a question.
  • The Second Reviver: Specify a benefit.
  • The Third Reviver: Suggest that the message-recipient is guilty.

Got those? Wondering what the %$#@ they mean? OK, a fast explanation:

  • Ask a question: You’ll note that the previous paragraph asks questions. The key to professionalism is asking pertinent and involving questions. Whether or not the word “You” appears in the question, aim it squarely at the reader, viewer, or listener. You always are in a competitive arena. Repeat: You always are in a competitive arena.
  • Specify a benefit: The benefit has to be to your target-individual, not to the sending organization. Toto, we aren’t in Kansas any more. People care about three things: Me. Myself. I. And that’s it. What will they get out of this? The professional’s job is to figure out something and challenge them with it. That leads directly to The Third Reviver…
  • Suggest that the message recipient is guilty. Guilty of what? It’s your call. It might be indifference. It might be arrogance. It might be inhumanity. It might be ignorance. It might be acceptance of false beliefs or counter-information. But of all the Great Motivators (Fear, Exclusivity, Greed, Guilt, and Need for Approval), Guilt is the runaway winner … when aimed professionally by a nonprofit meistersinger.


You, not We

One other 21st century rhetorical weapon the professional has in the quiver: Words should be arrows aimed outward, not aspirin swallowed inward. The inherent weakness of an unprofessional “We need help” appeal stems from the “About us” approach. No. It’s “About you.”

So building the message around how much money the organization needs is implicitly weaker than building it around what the organization expects from the individual it approaches. Requests should be couched in terms of the potential donor’s capability, not the organization’s goals.

Got all that? The person at whom you’re aiming is your partner, not an outsider. That’s why a question strikes home. That’s why the benefit of participation is clear and obvious. That’s why he or she feels guilty, for not holding up his/her end of the partnership.

That’s why the professional survives in the roiling competitive seas of 21st century fundraising.  NPT

Herschell Gordon Lewis is a professional writer who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla., consulting with and writing direct response copy for clients worldwide. He is the author of “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” an analysis of fundraising techniques. His web site is


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