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How To Use Your Nonprofit's Existence To Move Prospects To Donors

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Lining Up 

To get a coronavirus test.

To receive a food box.

To get a vaccine.

To buy toilet paper.

To await one’s turn to enter a grocery, pharmacy…

Lines today are everywhere.

What if you could add lining up to give to your charity to the list?

It’s possible you know.

But doing nothing won’t make it happen.

If you want lines of supporters making a beeline to your charity, first you must…

  1. Make people know about your nonprofit’s existence.
  2. Get people to have an interest in learning more about what you do.
  3. Offer opportunities for engagement.
  4. Invite investment.

Any of these things, even standing alone, can get folks to line up for you.

But if you want to assure folks take notice, and move along the pathway towards action, it’s wise to give them a little boost by incorporating a bit of psychology. Because people behave rather predictably.

Why not use what we know about human behaviors advantageously?

Too often folks tell me “oh, no; we can’t do something so manipulative.” Good grief people! You’re not trying to sell snake oil. You’re trying to persuade folks to help you save more lives… protect more environments… rescue more animals… discover more cures… uplift more spirits… and otherwise right more wrongs. ‘Sell’ is not a four-letter word (well, technically it is, but you know what I mean).

Daniel Pink, author of ‘To Sell is Human,’ says “we’re all in sales now.” Every single day you’re engaged, multiple times, in trying to persuade folks to do something. In nonprofits, that something you’re trying to get folks to do is volunteer or donate. I like to say “we’re all in fundraising now.”

Let’s take a closer look at what it takes to get people lining up for you.

For this article, I’m focusing on (1) your nonprofit’s existence and (2) interest because without the first you’ll never get to the second. And if you’ve only the first without the second, you’ll never move folks to the third and fourth.

1. Your Nonprofit’s Existence

If you’ve been around for a while… or are national or international in scope… you have an advantage. The mere fact you’ve existed for a long time, or have a broad reach, makes it more likely folks are aware of you. Yet these things are not within your control (bummer), nor are they absolutely necessary (yay!).

There are myriad ways to make folks aware you exist.

Among the tools to call attention to your cause, you have:

  1. Telling an emotional and compelling story.
  2. Using the ‘social proof’ power of influencers.
  3. Using the power of ‘authority’ to verify the merit of your nonprofit’s existence and methods.
  4. Offering a relevant solution to a top-of-mind problem.
  5. Responding to an urgent need/situation.

EXAMPLE: Recently I gave to a nonprofit out of the blue. I saw a story about how they were collaborating with local government to bring meals to homeless people, including folks displaced by the pandemic. It was a compelling story. I had made a spontaneous gift, which is rare for me. When I mentioned this to my husband, he pointed out it wasn’t really a gift made out of the blue. There were actually some psychological principles influencing my behavior! (1) I had in fact heard of them, knew some of their stories, and had already formed a positive view of their brand through reputation. (2) I saw the government was partnering with them, which acted as a sort of social proof — like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or Yelp review. (3) The government acted as a type of authority I was inclined to follow. (4) The charity was engaged in work very much in the news and top of mind, so it had immediate relevance. (5) Finally, the purpose was urgent.

At work in this example are many of the principles of Robert Cialdini from Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. You see, there’s a world of difference between:

  • This organization exists, but who cares because… the prospect knows nothing about you now nor is there anything about you that inclines them to want to know more, and
  • This organization exists, and it fits the prospect’s world view because… due to what else they’ve heard about you, what others say about you, who else supports you, how relevant what you do is to what they value, and how urgent it is for them to get more involved, they feel a match with their own values.

2. Interest

Once people are aware you exist, you must get them interested to learn more. Without interest, they’ll maybe line up once; then go away. And let’s not forget the critical importance of interest in the donor equation.

Interest is part of the ‘LIA’ triad. When seeking prospects for major gifts, you want folks that have:

  1. Linkage – some connection to you (e.g., client, beneficiary, member, visitor, friend, family, or colleague of someone linked to you, etc.)
  2. Interest – care about your nonprofit’s existence, vision, and values.
  3. Ability – capacity to make a gift.

You can’t do much about capacity (save suggesting folks might give out of their capital assets, not just income), but you can sometimes manufacture a linkage and nudge interest along.

Among the tools to create interest in your cause, in addition to the tools already discussed above, you have:

  1. Creating a sense of novelty.
  2. Creating a sense of scarcity or fear of missing out.
  3. Nurturing a sense of community.

The line has a role to play in creating interest; once people start to line up for you it creates a snowball effect. Ever see a line of people and stopped to see what they were lining up for? We tend to think it must be something good. Something worth waiting for. Even if you’ve no idea what people are lined up for, you’re intrigued.

EXAMPLE: about a year ago I remember seeing a long line of young women lined up outside a nondescript storefront. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on. I asked someone, and she mentioned the name of a brand of apparently popular shoes. I looked them up online, and… they had a lot of hype. Made from recycled water bottles and carbon-free rubber or vegan leather, the company had associated itself with things people value. For me, that wasn’t quite enough to wait in line or buy. The shoes didn’t have a fashion wow factor as far as I was concerned, and I wasn’t their ideal demographic. [Confession: they did interest me a little. Enough so that, every now and then, I think about and somehow want those shoes. Just because folks were lining up for them – indicating they were (1) a novelty, (2) in scarce supply, and (3) if I wore them I’d be part of a cool community!]

Lining Up is a Pre-Condition

Knowledge about your nonprofit’s existence and interest in your cause might get someone in line enough to click on your social media post, open your email or search for your website. Sometimes if the stars are aligned people will even donate. But will everyone donate? And will the donors give again? That depends on what you do next to nurture engagement and investment.

EXAMPLE: Do you remember the ice bucket challenge? People were essentially lining up to take it. Even folks who had never heard of the ALS Association wanted to participate. Many of the mental triggers we discussed were in play: novelty, community, social proof, and authority. Celebrities, politicians, CEOs and likely many people you know (maybe even you!) participated. But… many folks had no idea what this was a benefit for. Some donated, some didn’t. The ALS Association was deluged with donations: $115 million dollars in less than two months compared with $5 million during the same period the year before. They acquired 3 million new donors. Then it was up to them to figure out how to make this more than a one-time action.

The bar to creating an ice bucket challenge event is an enormously high one. While many ideas were floated at the time, we’ve yet to see anything come close. What else can you do to make people line up to give to you?

You must use the principles of influence and persuasion.

Here’s where marketing and fundraising must walk together hand-in-hand. You’re one team; don’t silo the two functions. If you’re in separate departments, coming from different directions, the message you deliver will be muddled.

To avoid muddling, everyone must agree. Everyone must have the same tools, including understanding, and using, the principles of persuasion. If you’re not connected, you’re disconnected. It’s usually not enough to simply hold out your hand.

There’s a reason good old-fashioned PR and advertising exists. It’s to build a recognizable brand (aka reputation). If you create a positive impression, it helps you with sales/fundraising. If you don’t, you’re working at half speed — trying to make tools not meant to do the whole job. So you limp along.

If you’re the fundraiser, trying to get folks to line up to give to you, that’s super frustrating. If you’re the marketer, being tasked to do something (e.g., bringing in donors) for which you have insufficient tools, that’s super frustrating too. Right?

Get your marketing and fundraising team together to figure out what you can do to get folks to line up for you. 

When crafting your strategies, consider incorporating the mental triggers discussed here: storytelling; social proof; authority; relevance; urgency; novelty; scarcity, and community.

To your success!

Nonprofit Sustainability

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  • Valerie Harris

    Great article! I especially relate to the part about marketing and fundraising working together. That's what I teach in my personalized communications sessions. One team!
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