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Selling Cars and Selling Your Cause

Resource Center - Foundation

(July 20, 2010) When he invented the Model T, Henry Ford did not have to think a lot about a persuasive message. "This is an automobile. It's better than a horse." He didn't really have to say anything. His product was one of a kind.

Unfortunately, many nonprofits today are still asking for donations as if they were selling a Model T, even as donors have grown far more discerning in the face of a barrage of appeals.

The line, ‘We have a really good cause--support us' is simply not good enough, says direct mail veteran and blogger Jeff Brooks. Donors, like customers, want to know more--get more. And the trend Is only increasing as itchy, entrepreneurial, results-driven baby boomers move into the prime of their charitable giving, he says.

"It may have been in the past that a charity could raise money by simply asking for it--essentially relying on their brand recognition to win the trust of a donor. At that time many people felt it their duty to support charity, but not necessarily follow the money closely," says Brooks. "But we now live in a time when institutions are questioned, authorities are questioned, and charities are no different."

So if the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, that not all charities are created equal, how can an organization that is not nationally advertised or highly recognizable "prove" to donors that it is making a difference? Brooks says one answer is to be more specific.

People give because they are going to make something happen, so your appeal needs to be as precise as possible about what that is, Brooks says. Asking someone to donate money to feed the hungry is not going to work as well as telling them that every $10 donated will provide dinner to a family of four. In other words, we can't afford to make giving a vague process.

Also, structure your appeal to the donor's capacity. You may ask one person to feed a family each night this week. You may ask another to ensure that family never goes hungry again.

Donors today demand to make a difference. So letting them know exactly what they are making happen is one good first step. Another is to give them some choices. "Tell a donor, ‘here's the problem--you can donate to X, Y, and Z program to help solve the problem,'" Brooks says. "That way you are not dictating the way people give, but rather just the opposite. You are starting with the donor and what he or she wants."

The funny thing, Brooks says, about offering a choice, is that donors will quickly turn back to your expertise as an organization. "Always give them a box to check that says, ‘give to where it is needed most,' because they will more often than not check that box, well aware that the nonprofit is in a better position of assigning funds." By offering a choice of where to put the donation, you give them a specific idea of what results will happen. "You're letting the donor call the shots."

People want efficiency, responsiveness, output and something that reflects their personal values. Is donating to charity in 2010 really any different than buying a car?

Jeff Brooks is creative director at TrueSense Marketing ( and blogs at He has been working in fundraising for more than 20 years.

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