Win More Donors with Hope, Not Fear

As published in

Charity websites and appeals often focus on statistics and stories that tap into our worst fears. Over 1.6 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the United States this year. One in three women is a victim of domestic violence. More than 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 per day. Malaria kills an African child every three seconds.

Such statistics, often amplified by streams of photos and videos of hungry children, victimized animals, and suffering patients are inescapable. But are they effective in maximizing donations?

While no one can deny that these tactics get attention and may get the public to open their wallets at least once, the key to driving successful donations over time is developing and nurturing long-term relationships.

And long-term relationships are based in a sense of optimism, not fear. Simply put, nonprofits that want to create a brighter future need to show how their work can get us closer to that future.

Americans in particular thrive on hope. Hope as a means of effecting positive change is deeply embedded in the American psyche and is the cornerstone of major political campaigns, rags-to-riches stories, even the movies we see time and again. We turn to hope when seeking solutions or new realities, as James W. Fraser noted in A History of Hope: When Americans have Dared to Dream of a Better Future. Mr. Fraser’s study resulted in over 3,000 research projects that largely confirmed his hypothesis.

My own company’s work has also shown that optimism wins over pessimism when communicating with donors, just like it does with mainstream consumers. We grew up developing direct-marketing campaigns for clients such as Time Warner Cable, TD Ameritrade, Allstate, and American Express. We saw that our work needed to quickly make a lasting, deep connection with consumers and that a positive, optimistic voice was critical to the sale. We have seen the same in donor research. To quote one donor, “If I’m going to bet on a horse, I want to bet on a horse that can see the finish line.”

Donor research has shown us that in an age of growing skepticism toward charities, the desire to make the world a better place is still very much alive and well. Donors have not lost their appetite for giving — they’re just more careful about how they donate and to whom. And they do their homework.

More information about nonprofits is available to donors than in previous decades (i.e., websites, reviews, news, and search engines) that can find anything. Donor choices are often based on evidence they collect themselves and are less influenced by others. This is particularly true of younger, more tech-savvy donors. The 2015 Millennial Impact Report, sponsored by the Case Foundation, confirms this, explaining that 84 percent of millennials made a charitable donation in 2014, but only 22 percent gave through their workplace; 78 percent made donations on their own.

Unequivocally, the more an organization can show donors what their money is accomplishing, the more likely donors are to continue contributing to its cause. And the ongoing story an organization tells needs to be made public. Astoundingly, many causes relegate their data analysis to sites like Charity Navigator and don’t go much further.

Most charities don’t have to look far to develop their own success stories. They often are about researchers who develop cures, patients who get good medical care, doctors, volunteers, and, of course, data. They create a realistic yet optimistic portrait of progress, providing evidence of success to the donor public. And they are the basis of new and lasting relationships.

In the healthcare arena, where we have worked with the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation and the Hospital for Special Surgery, among others, we have found great opportunity in explaining the science of discovery. More than ever before, we find that donors are interested in learning about breakthroughs in research and treatments. And while cures are the ultimate goal, telling the story of progress toward a cure is equally effective.

While many stories exist, telling them in a positive and emotionally compelling way is a collaborative effort between an advertising agency and a client. And that requires transparency, trust, and a solid working relationship.

Working with clients such as City of Hope and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, we have had great marketing partners with a desire to change the status quo. One thing we’ve learned is that the messages that management and employees tend to take for granted can often be most compelling to the public.

For example, as we worked with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to develop its “Someday Is Today” campaign, one of the most compelling points that we knew would resonate with donors came from data: In 1964, a child’s chance of surviving the most common form of childhood leukemia was 3 percent. Today about 90 percent of children survive. Researchers and healthcare professionals have known this for a long time (and have acknowledged the Society’s role in making this a reality), but the public didn’t know this. When they learned about this progress, people found it to be among the most compelling reasons to support the Society. Putting this message out to the public as part of a multichannel campaign incorporating TV, print, outdoor, and digital media helped increase online donations by 50 percent over the course of the campaign’s first year.

For City of Hope’s new advertising campaign, which uses the tagline “the Miracle of Science With Soul,” we combined scientific advances made at the organization as well as in its mind-body-spirit outlook to demonstrate what makes the hospital stand out. Understanding how these two aspects of City of Hope work together has become the cornerstone of all communication to patients, donors, and caregivers. The campaign, which started to appear last month in print and on television, radio, and outdoor media throughout California, relies on doctors, patients, and medical advances to tell the story of how science and compassion unite to help patients.

So let’s stop all the fear campaigns and get more people to give by focusing on hope.