Are emotions manipulative? What about images? Is it bad if people cry?

By Mary Cahalane

When we nonprofits tell a story that shares the needs of a beneficiary, we don’t create the tension that the donor feels. The story just reveals the internal tension the donor holds between how the world is and how they believe the world should be.

In a recent post, Steven Screen shared this quote from a wise leader of an organization. I absolutely love it.

Because for fundraisers — especially fundraising writers — these are serious questions. They hinge on honesty and people’s right to dignity. And beneficiaries should never, ever be asked to give up that dignity.

But those questions shouldn’t hinge on the discomfort of people inside your organization about messy emotions.

In a professional setting, many of us aren’t comfortable with too much emotion. It can feel like weakness. Or even attention-seeking. (I’m sure you’ve worked with someone who was known as the office drama queen or king.)

But that has nothing to do with how to communicate with donors. Your discomfort is probably a useful clue that you’re on the right track.

Because people who need help, who are hungry or sick or struggling, make us uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing!

(Worry more about the people who aren’t bothered!)

If there isn’t a problem to solve, there isn’t a reason for donors
Not every problem is life and death, of course. I wrote for a theater for years. And we had to struggle internally with knowing that we weren’t promising to house or heal people — at least physically.

The problem we asked donors to solve was both more simple and more nuanced. And it depended on a particular audience.

But we knew that theater lovers connected emotionally to the work. They understood the value of an emotional journey. The catharsis of a moving story, well-told.

But there still had to be a problem. And it also depended on some discomfort: I love coming to the theater! And I don’t mind paying for my ticket. But now I know that my ticket only covers half the expense of the show. What can I do about that?

Your organization isn’t failing if you haven’t solved every problem yet
Inside, it’s hard to admit that your solutions haven’t already solved the problem. It feels like you’re not doing your job.

But if you’re a fundraiser, your job isn’t just housing people or feeding them. Your job is widening the circle of people who are willing to help you solve the problem.

Donors aren’t stupid. They know big problems need lots of willing hands. You need to find your donors, persuade them, and then keep them engaged as part of the solution.

And that means being emotionally engaged. We are emotional creatures.

It’s how our brains work. Think about what happens to people when they have a baby. Yes, you’ve chosen to have a child. Intellectually you understand that means a high level of commitment for at least a couple of decades. You may even have calculated the financial investment you’ll need to make.

But mother nature knows more. And your brain is also being tuned to react to that small presence. Oxytocin is flooding your system when little hands grab yours.

(Personal confession: I have never met a baby or small child I wasn’t absolutely ready to fall head over heels in love with. So if you find me making googly faces at your baby, be reassured that I’m utterly harmless.)

Don’t be afraid to communicate honestly and with feeling
Read the quote I borrowed from Steven Screen again. You’re not creating the donor’s discomfort. You’re revealing it — and inviting them to do something good. They’ll feel better when they do, and so will your beneficiaries. It’s a win-win.

You’re encouraging kindness.

But you won’t get there if you shy away from human feelings and showing problems honestly.

With more than 30 years experience in the non profit world, Mary Calahane is the principal of Hands-On Fundraising and specializes in donor communications and fundraising planning.

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