No sad kittens? Raising money for an un-cute cause

This month, a worried fundraiser, David S., asked…


“Do you have suggestions about how to write for theaters and vocal singing groups?”

[Insert sound of nails being bitten.] “How do you light a fire under the donors when no one will go hungry or homeless?”

I hear this a lot.

“We have no puppies, kittens, kids, homeless nor starving children.”

True, I suppose: It’s “easier” to raise money for those kinds of “obviously sad” causes. (I hate to use the word “easier” around fundraising, because none of it’s easy … even bake sales.)

There’s a fundamental psychological reason why causes serving starving kids can find it a bit easier to raise money:

Because those causes can access a much larger pool of prospects … thanks to human nature and its built-in biological presets.

Most of us come factory-equipped with empathy.

We CAN/DO feel someone else’s pain … and we are instinctively moved to ease that pain … if there’s a chance we can help … as long as it’s convenient … and comes at an affordable price point.

Causes dealing with kids can exploit a further advantage: the “cuteness factor.”

We humans take care of our young. In fact, adult humans are instinctively inclined to take care of ANYONE’S young, ours or not.

When a creature looks “cute,” that’s biology talking, at high volume: A creature that looks “cute” is vulnerable. It still needs your care! Do something!! NOW!!!!!!!!!!!

The arts are different-ish (sort of)

YOUR pool of prospects is a subset: it always is for the arts.

The only ones who’ll care about the continued existence of theaters and singers are those who value that kind of performance, for whatever reason.

One obvious group would be self-identified “arts-lovers.”

Another might be people who also sing in their local church choir.

Another might be me: a nostalgic high school band member (1st trumpet) who met true (if temporary) love there.

You don’t know why people give … unless you ask.

It’s always personal, though.

Foundational math re: response rates, from Jeff Brooks, Future Fundraising Now. (See what you’ve been missing? Subscribe!):

  • 40% of your response will be due to the quality of your “list” (are you putting your offer in front of the right people?),
  • 40% of your response will be due to the “irresistibility” (sp?) of your “offer” (i.e., what are you asking me to do? is it intriguing? is it affordable? “Will you please help raise the curtain for one night? That will cost us $144 in charity that we don’t currently have.”)
  • the final 20% of your response will be due to how clever your writing and design are (creativity is the smallest contributor to response, bottom-line; ‘course, an arts crowd might favor cleverness more than some other crowd)

Then there’s this…

Stephen Pidgeon’s world-famous story-telling (i.e., fundraising) formula has four elements:

  • vision
  • enemy
  • those served by the mission
  • the hero (the donor, giving through the nonprofit, to make something lovely happen)

Arts groups don’t give this enough thought.

Who’s YOUR real enemy… …that enemy WHICH your donor will ~ with her gifts ~ defeat, smother, obliterate, crush, send stalking away in shame, repair, counter, reverse, fight, fight, FIGHT! Figure out YOUR enemy. Fundraising Day One, people. Do NOT pass GO until you get this straight. Did Einstein say this already? If you don’t figure out exactly which enemy your donor wants to defeat unmercifully, you will fundraise the minimum ~ not the maximum. I know an animal welfare charity that hemorrhaged 30% of its annual donor base over the last six years … because they told exactly the wrong half of the story. They pushed out a much-too-happy-face donor newsletter. Do presumptions, guess work, and opinions EVER work? In this particular case, donors wanted to defeat cruelty. Adoptions and happy endings were nice, of course! ~ BUT they came as a by-product AFTER ending human cruelty toward animals. Cruelty was the “trigger” behind many gifts. Ooops: the charity presumed RESCUE was the trigger. Obvious secret to raising more funds: Figure out which enemy YOUR SPECIFIC donors want to defeat with their gifts. Like the rest of us, you’re “different” (bless your heart) In my book about case-making, Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes, I devoted a chapter to how less-obvious causes (a historical society, in that instance) can find their target audience(s). Chapter 4 starts this way: A case for support, in my opinion, is not very much about what your organization does: the daily activities, how it works, the operating hours, the staff, the names of programs, and a thousand other mundane details. I believe a case is mostly about your promise, the promise you make to the world through your mission, your accomplishments, and your plans. Call it “the big picture.” A good ten years ago now, Maureen Welch, then at the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society in Connecticut, sent a plea. She asked me to consider writing a book titled Who are you kidding: Help for non-essential nonprofits. Her suggestion was a jest. But not entirely. There are plenty of nonprofits who suspect they’re in a similar fix: nice … but non-essential; and therefore not very compelling or competitive in the philanthropic marketplace. The Society is first-rate outfit. It manages, preserves, and opens to the public a distinguished portfolio of magnificent old homes dating as far back as 1678. They are lovely relics. Still, Maureen found it hard to imagine what case for support she could propose that would tug at donors’ heart strings like charities can that improve the world or ease suffering. Maureen, this chapter’s for you. BEFORE you start asking for gifts, you need a case for support. Right? (YES!) Learn Stephen Pidgeon’s Four Pillars Formula. It’s the easiest case formula I know. (I know several!) Where will you find such a thing? In Stephen’s expectation-altering, presumption-destroying summary of what he learned as one of the most successful direct mail fundraisers in UK history. TITLE: How to Love Your Donors (to Death). So … what IS the case for support for arts groups? What specific enemy will your donors defeat? It might be as simple as a CLOSED sign on a theater’s box office. Let me know what you come up with. tom # # #

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