Using donors as part of your case for support

January 12 2017 - Mark Phillips

One of the things that frustrates me about modern fundraising is the belief that some donors can actually be a bit of a problem. Last year, I was at the sharp end of a rant where someone was complaining about donors. It went a little like this…

“Don’t they understand that it costs us to sign them up? Why do they agree to a direct debit if they are going to cancel? And now if we can’t call them, how are we going to reactivate them? We know they won’t upgrade by mail. Why can’t they just be straight with us?”

It reminded me of the angry married person who blames their partner for the collapse in their relationship because they only see their own point of view.

It’s obviously a grim position to be in, but the real question is, how do you break free of that way of thinking?

Pete Townshend might have the answer.

Yep. That Pete Townshend. The one from The Who.

There’s a great documentary about The Who’s management team, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, called, interestingly enough, Lambert and Stamp. It features the surviving members of the band along with friends and family who share insights about the early days and the development of the group.

Pete recounts a story from the time when they were known as The High Numbers for a few months. Their first single hadn’t done very well so Lambert and Stamp were working out how to market them. The band had started to view their audience base as a problem and were struggling to get a breakthrough.

As Townshend explains, that happened when Kit Lambert refocused their view. Instead of seeing the audience as a barrier to be overcome, they “allowed them to be” and affirmed just how important the fans were to the band’s success.

They did this by creating a synergy between the group and the audience. The band became a mirror held up to the fans. So they started wearing clothes that the sharper members of the fan base wore to gigs. More importantly, they created a club called the 100 Faces Club. Lambert and Stamp would give out free membership to the “faces” who represented their ideal audience. These members would get free access and drinks when the band played and would also bring their friends along.

In that way, The Who became fashionable by association. They obviously needed to play decent music, but aside from that they also got credit for creating a style that really came from their audience. It’s interesting to see that in the early films made by Lambert and Stamp, they seemed to spend more time recording the audience that the band. Take a look at this video from 1964:

So what’s this got to do with fundraising?

Well those young people following a band in the 1960s wanted something more than music. And now they are half a century older they want to do more than to just fund “good work”. They want something else from charities. Something far more powerful.

They want a means of self-definition. To show who they are and what they believe.

Take a look back over the last few hundred years and you’ll see this desire has been regularly brought to play by our fundraising ancestors. From massive public meetings in the 19th century to the the flag days that mushroomed in the early part of the 20th century, to more recent events like Red Nose Day and Make Poverty History, through to the Ice Bucket Challenge and the #nomakeupselfie. At times like these, when support of a charity becomes a public phenomenon, fundraising moves from the personal to the social sphere. This, when managed carefully, can lead to the creation of powerful movements.

And more importantly, it is possible to put this insight to use in a mailing pack. So if you want to see if something else other than a strong offer can encourage donors to stick around and even give you more, try out these three ideas in your next appeal. They may have nothing to do with your work, but can make a huge difference to your bottom line.

Choose your signatory with care

Social movements need leaders, figureheads who can can articulate what other people feel. That means in your direct mail appeal, who asks is very important. I’ve seen appeals fly and I’ve seen those same appeals die when a signatory is changed. When you are thinking about someone to front your appeal by signing the letter, question if a donor will be engaged by them. Will they see them as someone they can trust? Someone whose opinion they value? Someone they will want to impress or even please? Have they given to them before?

Don’t choose your signatory on a whim. And remember, a CEO is not always best. I wouldn’t recommend using a willing but untested celebrity either. Unless the signatory has resonance with the reader, they can have a negative impact on your appeal.

People like to know what their peers are doing

Donors like to know that people similar to themselves support your charity. So feature an endorsement from a current donor in your appeal – perhaps on the donation form – with photographs. Use testimonials to show that you can be trusted and that you treat your supporters with respect. You can also use them to suggest gift levels. In my early days as a fundraiser we actually tested testimonials. The same appeal, but with different endorsements. The winner was a doctor from Devon.

People like to show off about what they believe in

Badges work. Ribbons on lapels, bands on wrists, even those red baseball hats used by Donald Trump were not just for keeping the sun out of people’s eyes. They all give people a chance to show off about what they believe in (or don’t believe in) and by association, give a richer experience of being a donor. It’s why address labels can boost response rates. They aren’t just handy. They can give you a chance to show others what sort of person you are. So don’t just dismiss these devices as gimmicks. Think about how your donors might like to show others that they support you and package them up in your next appeal.

Remember, there’s more to fundraising than promoting your cause and building a brand. Donors who really care usually want to feel they are part of a charity. By focusing on answering their wider needs, you can show them how much they are appreciated, valued and understood. You can also give them a chance to a show off a little about it too.

  • simonejoyaux

    Marvelous piece, Marky Phillips. Reminds me of Seth Godin’s great great piece about Perfume and brand and the story of “us” or “me”. April 14, 2013. “The brand is a story. But it’s a story about you, not about the brand.” http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/04/the-brand-is-a-story-but-its-a-story-about-you-not-about-the-brand.html

    Love your use of rock and The Who. We can learn so much from the playlist. For example: “You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore… and “You’re So Vain,” Carly Simon. Our donors keep trying to tell us!!!

    Thank you thank you, Mark. I’m going to add this to one of my upcoming newsyletters.

  • Good Job : MARK PHILLIPS….especially two lines People like to know what their peers are doing and People like to show off about what they believe are really good ….thanks for this…..