Making The Case

July 15, 2008       Herschell Gordon Lewis      

By now every nonprofit organization in the civilized world knows a brutal truth: As the cost of a gallon of gasoline and milk spiral above four dollars, donations drop off the bottom.

It’s true of any facet of economics: Those first affected by a negative factor are those in the bottom half of an orbit. So the out-of-work people who peddle publications with titles such as “Homeless Voice” are the first to feel the pinch. Those who give dollars from their pocket are the second, as car windows roll down less often and hands offering dollar bills are kept inside the car.

Ex-students struggling to repay student loans and families whose new daily decision is whether to ride a bicycle instead of driving the car to the grocery store might have given a few dollars in the past … but they don’t have the giving spirit in the bleak year 2008. With unpaid balances on their credit cards, their donation-renewal rate plummets.

Major donors? Some are untouched, but another negative is the increase in demands on their pocketbooks by competing nonprofits. That competitive increase seems to be an exact ratio to reduced donations by the $5 to $100 givers.

And an “oops” factor exists this year — a highly emotional, highly aggressive national election, in which the demand for dollars has a powerful underpinning that adds a dimension of timeliness … dragging donations away from the traditional nonprofits.

So what to do? In a negative fundraising climate, as in a negative personal relationship, the truth could be the factor that sets you free. So a mailing or email that states quickly and forcefully, “I don’t have to tell you that these are lean times” will have at least a few heads nodding in your direction. Rapport supplants an automatic “Not now” syndrome.

Direct mail gurus have established: “If you’re like I am” as a competitive winner in commercial solicitation letters. Obviously, shifting that approach to fundraising is risky … but equally obvious is the absolute need for rapport when competing in a shrinking arena.

If we agree that the typical individual (not the coveted major donor who exchanges a seven-figure donation for “name-on-the-building” ego food) allocates a finite amount as a total for all causes, we automatically agree that we personalize our appeal or we lose.

So an apparently bleak, stark admission might have greater impact than a Pollyannish “We’re OK, so thank you” communication.

Necessary disclaimer: Note the words “might have greater impact.” If all eleemosynary groups adopt the same platform, the share of the pie for each has to drop. So one area that stays the same from happier times is testing. People don’t run on our tracks; they have their own, and an approach that works for a hospital or a research foundation could draw a blank for the library or symphony orchestra.

The key to bad-times fundraising: Guilt Two rules can help maintain a respectable response ratio in the teeth of a declining economy.
Rule 1: The first discards are those anyone feels are of least future value.
Rule 2: This is an absolute in interpersonal relationships, the more distant the relationship, the less ability an individual (or organization) has to generate guilt.

This gives you ammunition. Recognizing that one-to-one is neither new nor daring … but sometimes outside the typical approach of many nonprofits … you can embrace this technique with 2008-vintage scalpels in hand.

First, in direct mail or email, let “I” supplant “We.” “I” not only represents a more personal relationship; it becomes individual-to-individual rather than group-to-individual.

Implementing this might mean an outer envelope whose return address is the sender’s name — that is, the person who signs the letter, not the group. Setting that name in American Typewriter or even Courier imparts a one-to-one aura far beyond Times Roman.

Second, maintain the “I” image. “We” then embraces sender and recipient, the intended team. Then, to spawn a proper guilt-reaction, “I need you” probably will out-pull “You can be a hero.” Tell the recipient what the person already knows – that probably the potential donor is hurting as much as you are. By making it clear that you’re leaning on the target-individual, you avoid that person reaching the same conclusion. You’ve spread a net that includes both of you. Then, an explanation of why right now has such significance will extract contributions that otherwise wouldn’t exist or would go to a cause that did employ a rapport-grabber.

Will it work? This is a bare-bones suggestion, based on psychological truisms but not on any problems that might beset an explicit situation. My opinion might not parallel yours: If response is down, get personal. And when you get personal, whatever you might say to cause a potential contributor to stop, think, and have a sleepless night is to your advantage.

That’s a brutal thought. But these are brutal times. NPT

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Pompano Beach, Fla., consulting with and writing direct response copy for clients worldwide. Among his 31 books is the recently-published “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings.” Among his other books are “Open Me Now”; “Asinine Advertising”; “How to Write Powerful Fundraising Letters”; “On the Art of Writing Copy”; “Marketing Mayhem”; and “Effective E-Mail Marketing.” Web site is