Fraser Green

Fraser Green

Former political campaigner and current fundraising strategist with a knack for understanding how audiences will react to messages.

My Take on Poverty Porn

May 29, 2017

A fellow Good Worker asked me into her office the other morning to ask for my help. She was struggling with new creative material for a series of fund appeals for a client.

Now, I’m not going to name this client – but I am going to say that when it is successful in its mission, many lives are saved and much despair is alleviated. I personally love this organization – and I’m deeply committed to its cause and mission.

So, this life-and-death client wants to do fundraising campaigns and raise money in summertime – the season when donors pay the least attention. The clients has asked us to make the stories powerful and to make the asks urgent.

But, there’s a catch…

The client has decided that they won’t talk about the problem. Only the solution.

The client won’t talk about the pain. Only the hope.

The client won’t talk about despair and grieving. Only optimism and joy.

Houston, we have a problem. A big one…

When I was a young pup fundraiser way back when, one of my mentors was a woman named Fran Lowe. Fran always told me that fundraising was a four-step sequence:

  1. State the problem that needs solving. The problem defines the cause.
  2. Describe the solution to the problem. The solution brings hope.
  3. Establish your organization’s credibility as being best able to provide the solution.

And, once you’ve done these three things…

  1. ASK for MONEY to solve the problem.

There is absolutely NO question in my mind that the donor or the prospect is most effectively engaged when she starts to care about the problem. And, if the problem is ugly, you need to make it ugly. It should look ugly. Smell ugly. Sound ugly – and feel ugly. We know from neuroscience that donors give from the empathy centre of the brain. They give because they share the pain, the fear, the sadness of the people with the problem.

And let’s make no mistake about it! Few things in life feel better than sharing in someone’s pain and then being able to do something to help that person find relief from that pain. That’s a huge part of what philanthropy (and being human!) is all about.

But, we’ve got some program people who don’t like presenting the ugliness of the problem. They feel it takes self-respect and dignity from the people your organization is helping. They want to stay focused on positive things like hope, faith and optimism.

I get this approach. I did a Masters of Social Work and I was surrounded by these people. But, the problem is that this ‘positive approach’ completely fails to raise money.

IT DOESN’T WORK!

I challenge you to test this at your own organization. Plan a fundraising campaign of any kind: direct mail, face to face, e-appeal. Split your target audience into equal halves. Send one half a full, gritty description of the problem you need to solve. Send the other half an appeal that is all positive and hopeful. I GUARANTEE you’ll raise more money with grit than you will with cheerfulness.

POSTSCRIPT: I know full well how tough it can be to convince your Board Chair, Finance Chief or CEO that you need to tell sad stories. My advice is that you have to monetize their decision to exclude the problem from the campaign. You might end up saying something like this:

I fully understand how you feel Fred, and you know what? I’d love to stick with positive messages too. I really would. But the problem is that we won’t raise as much money if we stay positive. This campaign we’re planning raised $78,000 last year. If we don’t talk about the problem, I predict that our revenues will drop by between $25,000 and $30,000. Can we afford not to have that revenue?”

At least that usually gets them to sit up and listen!

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