Back when I first got involved in direct response fundraising in 1989, there were two common practices that we often used in direct mail.

The first was the renewal letter. This was a simple, short letter that basically said “Hey donor. It’s a new year. Time for you to give again. Write out your cheque and send it to us please.” In other words, the message was ‘give now because we want you to’. And guess what? These letters actually worked!

And then there were the very popular ‘wave reminder’ letters, used often by hospital foundations. In essence, these letters said; “Hey donor. We sent you a fundraising letter last month and you didn’t send us a cheques. What’s up with that? Please send us a cheque now!” And guess what? These letters worked too!

Back in the day, we took donors for granted – and we got away with it. My friends, those days are LONG gone. The donor has the keys to the philanthropy bus. She’s going to drive the process – and you’d better learn how to go along for the ride.

We’re living in a new age. And I want to take a minute to put it into context for you:

  • For more than 90% of human history, we were hunters and gatherers. We wandered around in small groups, following game and picking berries. We were nomadic, primitive, and illiterate.
  • Then, we learned how to grow crops and the agricultural age was born. We lived in one place (near our fields) and our communities grew larger.
  • Then, in the late 1700s, the industrial revolution began. We moved from farms to factories. From villages to cities. We organized in large groups and practiced uniformity in a big way. (In fact, today’s education system (IMHO) is pretty much based on the industrial factory idea, turning out a nice, homogenous group of workers.)
  • Then we had the information revolution beginning in the 1980s. Everyone got a personal computer – and you know where it went from there. Today as I drive down the street, I have to wait for a pedestrian to dawdle across in front of me with her face stuck in her smartphone.
  • Today, we’re living in the attention economy. The prized asset in today’s economy isn’t gold or oil or water or electricity. It’s the customer’s (or donor’s) MINDSHARE. Today’s person is overwhelmed with incoming messages (8,000 per day, which is much more than the brain can handle). Our brains are cranking out 60,000 thoughts a day – that’s about one thought per second for every hour we’re awake! Smart companies (and smart charities) are now going to great lengths to figure out how to get their audiences’ attention. And they sure don’t take that attention for granted!

So, my main message to you today is this: GET OVER YOURSELF! Just because you want to say something to your donor today, why in the world should you assume that she wants to listen to you? She’s busy damnit! Her brain is already overloaded. The last thing she needs is one more thing to read, one more thing to think about or one more decision to make.

In my opinion, this is one of the big reasons why it’s getting harder to attract new donors – and getting a LOT harder to renew them from year to year. They’ve constructed defenses to keep unnecessary messages out of their heads – and yet you’re still sending them the same old institutional drivel you were sending fifteen years ago.

If you want your donor to pay attention, you’d better make what you’re going to say interesting and relevant to her. The bar has been raised – and it’s time for you to up your game! And you’re in luck – we have some tools to help you out!

Four Tools To Improve Donor Relevance

1. Segment your donor audience

Slice them into the smallest slices you can imagine – and then tailor your messages to those narrow segments. One size fits all in communications just doesn’t work any more. My advice to Good Works clients is to segment so narrow that it starts to feel painful – and then cut those segments in half again! The old maxim of ‘marketing to one’ is becoming a reality.

2. Become a world-class storyteller.

The neurology findings are in. There is no longer ANY question that stories are the stickiest, most powerful way that we humans communicate with each other. To paraphrase neuroscientist Roger Schenk, “The human mind IS NOT built to process facts and figures. The human mind IS built to process stories.

3. Make your message emotional.

Despite what we think we do, 85% of our decisions and behaviours are actually driven by the unconscious, emotional brain. Pick an emotion you want your donor to feel (like sadness, anger, fear or happiness) and use your storytelling to spark that emotion.

4. Choose your messenger with care.

Take a look at your website for example. Is most of the language written on it from ‘the institution’? Is it anonymous information from no one in particular? Now go through your website and imagine if everything written on it was actually from SOMEONE. I’ll bet your content would become way more compelling, relevant and persuasive!

Please give some serious thought to how you’re communicating with your donors. Please stop taking them for granted! And please try the four tools I’ve just outlined for you. I’d love to hear how they work – and how your donors become more engaged with your cause and your mission. Good luck!