Thursday, May 21, 2009

Puppies and Pandemics

According to a recent study of fundraising organizations in the U.S., it would seem that in terms of charitable giving, puppies and pandemics are the hot sellers. My question is why.

First, a little background. The Index of National Fundraising Performance tracked direct mail donations to 75 charitable organizations in seven categories. The study is comprehensive, measuring a wide array of factors like new donor acquisition, donor retention, average gift and number of gifts per donor. In total, the study summarizes the activity of 36 million donors, 68 million individual gifts and over $2 billion in revenue - so; its statistical base is sound. And the two categories that fared the best in the past year? Animal Welfare and International Relief.

While all other sectors are clearly showing the effects of the lagging economy, these two sectors are doing just fine. According to the study, “The animal welfare sector has been arguably the highest-performing sector in the index over the past three years. These organizations do not appear to be experiencing the negative effects of the struggling economy.” And, “Relief organizations had positive growth in both donors and revenue in 2008, at a time when almost all other sectors saw declines.”

The study in part attributes the performance of the Animal Welfare to the conviction of football star Michael Vick on dog-fighting charges and offers no explanation for the healthy performance of the International Relief sector.

I have my own explanation. I was taught early in my working career that sales is a transfer of emotion. Every sale – and make no mistake, a charitable gift is a sale – is made primarily on the strength of emotion. These two categories - animal welfare and international relief - are eliciting the greater emotional response. Yes, I know that every charitable gift has an emotional component but there is clearly something about helpless animals and those caught in the wake of natural disaster that is making people respond more generously. These causes are touching the hearts of donors and I think its because donors feel a pressing need. In the end, it’s not about the organizations. Rather its about the people and animals that need help.

How can we learn from this? Fundraising marketing should focus on the impact that an organization is having on the individual. Tell stories. Use testimonials. Make it personal. Even organizations that don’t provide direct service can cast the benefits of support in terms of the effect on the lives of real people. Time and time again, emotion sells. Touch the hearts of your supporters and you will get results.

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