I like to get e-mail from nonprofit organizations. Whether it's a newsletter or a solicitation, I enjoy reading about what I can do to help someone less fortunate.
Because I'm in the business, I also read and analyze every newsletter or solicitation I receive for tone, language, visual presentation, and overall creative concept. I save the good ones, discuss the bad ones with clients and colleagues, and try to connect with organizations that are doing a good job to let them know how much I appreciate their outreach and efforts.
Looking for a fresh dose of inspiration, I recently decided to go back and review the e-mails and newsletters I've received since the beginning of the year, all 453 of them. Here's a quick breakdown by category:
Number of organizations: 86
International mission-based organizations: 19
U.S. mission-based organizations: 67
E-mail solicitations: 82
Volunteer requests: 23
Sign-the-petition e-mails: 22
Most of the e-mails were sent by Indianapolis-based organizations working to address an issue or need in the city, Indiana, or the region. No surprise, since I call Indianapolis home and am happy to support efforts that directly or indirectly make things better for my family, friends, and neighbors. I'm also more informed about the challenges my local community faces than I am about issues and challenges in other communities, regions, and countries and, in many cases, able to see the impact of my donations firsthand.
I say this, but my giving decisions do not necessarily reflect that reality. In 2012, for instance, I split my charitable contributions among community-based and international organizations. And I gave more than once to at least one international cause, but never made a second donation to a local organization. What's more, during the critical end-of-year fundraising season (mid-November to December 31), I gave more money to international causes than I did to community-based organizations — which surprises me, given the amount of attention local media and my professional networks give to help-a-neighbor campaigns during the holidays.
I don't think I'm unusual in this respect. Each year, Achieve, our cause-focused agency, does research on millennial-donor engagement trends and includes questions about survey participants' giving preferences with respect to local and international causes. And every year since 2009, local has come out on top. But when we conduct focus-group sessions with millennials, a different picture emerges: While millennials express an interest in local organizations and causes, they end up giving just as much and, sometimes more, to international organizations and causes.
Because I'm in the business, I need to be able to explain findings like that. So recently I took a selection of e-mails I'd received from both local and international organizations, printed and spread them out on a conference table in our office, and reread them. And this is what I found:
Images. In general, organizations working overseas tend to use imagery more effectively than U.S.-based nonprofits. Their solicitations and newsletters include images that inspire and connect me emotionally to a cause and help me visualize how my donations will help. They make a distant community or country — one I'm unlikely to ever visit and, in most cases, is an abstraction — real and tangible.
Think about it. When you gave to help victims of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, was it because you had been to Haiti or were planning to travel there post-earthquake to see firsthand the impact of your donation? Organizations that work internationally understand that the best way to overcome the challenge of distance is by forging an emotional connection between giver and cause. Their fundraising materials tend to feature the faces of vulnerable individuals, a child or an adult, in need of assistance — and the happy results of that assistance. The best of these appeals makes me forget, at least for a few minutes, about issues in my local community and move me to give.
Storytelling. After reading five different communications from both local and international organizations, I noticed something else. International organizations aren't just good at telling their stories; they are masters of the form. They tend to use language that is charged and descriptive. Instead of talking about poverty in the abstract, they paint a picture for the reader of what it means to be a single mother or a fatherless child trying to survive on $2 a day. They tend not to overwhelm you with data, instead using well-chosen statistics selectively within a story to illustrate the severity of a problem.
Consider this example from Smile Train, an organization that provides free cleft surgery for children in eighty-seven countries. Note, in the excerpt below, how the organization seamlessly combines an appeal to the heart with its "ask."
One particular patient we met was Kwadwo, a nine-year-old boy with a repaired cleft lip. In Ghana, like many developing countries, children with clefts are stigmatized. Here, they are believed to be the progeny of the river gods. Upon birth, the cleft child is taken by the village talisman priest and is sacrificed as a tribute to the gods. Thus, the initial reaction of most cleft mothers is one of bereavement and bitter disappointment. They sob and find themselves ostracized and scared. They are unwilling to leave their homes to avoid exposing the child to the scrutiny of the village, as was the case with Kwadwo's mother. She informed me that, upon seeing her child born with a cleft, "I wanted to run. I was terrified. The father left me after I gave birth and I sobbed. I would have left my son at the hospital, had the doctor not threatened me with arrest, as such a thing is illegal." Many cleft parents, such as Kwadwo's mother, are often unaware that a cleft is merely a recessive genetic mutation, a congenital deformity that can be repaired by a $250 surgery, a free procedure thanks to the generosity of Smile Train donors...
I saw many such examples of persuasive storytelling and the use of imagery on that conference table, and the one thing they all had in common was that they made me forget, for a moment, more pressing needs at home. It's that moment, the moment in which a potential donor is inspired to help someone in need, that all nonprofit organizations should be striving to create through their newsletters and e-mail solicitations. After all, there's a lot of need in my community - and, no doubt, in yours. My family, my friends, my networks are ready and willing to help. Show us the people who need our help and tell us how we can make a difference. We will respond.
Derrick Feldmann is CEO of Achieve, a creative fundraising agency based in Indianapolis.