Friday February 8th 2013

Preaching to the Choir: Reaching the Right People with the Right Message


The prevailing wisdom among nonprofits when it comes to fundraising goes something like this: "If more people know about us, we will raise more money."

The reality, however, is more nuanced and goes something like this: If the right people know the right things about you, there is a greater likelihood that you will raise more money.

If the former were true, fundraising success would be a matter of breadth over depth, focusing time and money on getting the word out to as many people as possible. Presumably, the payoff would be commensurate with the the growing awareness of the organization and its work. To be sure, there are circumstances under which the wide-net approach is effective, such as national appeals for disaster relief.

But for most nonprofits, the key to the effective outreach is focus. Why focus over breadth? Consider the following:

1. Who cares is who pays.

2. Not everyone is going to care.

3. Not everyone is going to care for the same reason.

What does this mean for fundraising? First, it means that nonprofits must be realistic about who is likely to support their work…and why. Unfortunately, people simply can't give to every nonprofit that stands for a worthy cause. And the appeal that "everyone is better off if we are able to…[fill in the blank]" simply means that no one feels personally responsible for making sure it happens. Just ask your local public radio station.

Typically, nonprofits try to convince people that they should care, which leads them to assume that everyone is a potential donor. Instead, effective development efforts do the heavy lifting in advance by figuring out why someone would care about the outcomes they produce. A good place to start is to undergo an honest assessment of the messages and stories you convey to potential donors.If your appeal is based on a personal story of someone who has benefited from the work of your organization (the infamous "Johnny" who couldn't read, for example), you need to help me understand why I have a stake in this outcome. For example, is Johnny typical of your success? How many people like Johnny are out there? What happens to these people if they don't receive the help you provide?

Ultimately, the nonprofit must make individuals feel like they are a partner in creating a desirable social outcome. I may support the nonprofit because I am concerned about Johnny; or because I am concerned about social inequality that results from the achievement gap; or because I simply want to be associated with an organization that addresses literacy.

Any preacher will tell you that it is easier to preach to the choir than it is to convince strangers to attend church. The same is true for nonprofit fundraising. Yes, you may collect a few converts along the way. But your bread and butter are those willing to receive the message.