Legendary donor communications guru Tom Ahern recently joined us for a webinar in which he shared all of the counter-intuitive knowledge and insights he’s learned since moving out of commercial marketing and into the nonprofit sector.

In the excerpt below, Tom talks about aspects of donor communications like “the cuteness factor,” triggering empathy and the importance of negative emotions.

You can watch a snippet of the recording below:

Full Transcript:

Negative emotions, as you see here, are linked to survival, therefore they have far more punching power than happy faces. This is a good example of a nicely done Berkshire County Kids’ Place, home page. You have the child who needs help.

Now what’s working here is that, unless you are literally a psychopath, you have empathy built into your coding, and that empathy is being activated by these sad faces, plus she’s a child. Look up the word “cuteness” on Wikipedia, and you may be shocked by how much science is behind it. What cuteness actually is in biology is a state. We recognize cuteness because it’s a signal from biology to the adults that the child still needs care.

She looks cute, and I will fix her problem. I am going to be responsive to any child because, again, it’s in my biological coding to try to fix kids’ problems.

Here’s Angel Aloma, and he attended a workshop in Amsterdam. He went back and he listened to basically what you’re listening to today; although I’ve gone a lot further since then. When he went back, he thought, ‘Well, no, we’re doing this just fine. We are donor centered.” Buthe had an open mind, and he looked at all the stuff that was communicating from Food for the Poor and said, “I realized we weren’t donor centered, not really.”

They changed everything. He was writing me to say thank you, basically, that all those years ago he’d taken this workshop and it had gotten Food for the Poor through the great recession in nice shape, and they had been growing. Now, what had started as a smaller charity is now a $1 billion a year food aid charity. He gives the credit to donor centricity.

This is what a typical newsletter from Food for the Poor looks like. Notice, no smiley faces. Also, notice the word “You” is gigantic — why “you” the donor matter. On the inside, you’d find a spread like this. Their lives depend on you. Look at the big type, because your big type is where the message gets transferred. Small type has almost no messaging ability, because most people don’t read it. We know this from eye motion studies. We can see what they’re looking at. They’re not looking at the small type.

But they do, because they have to, and why their brain says, “Look at everything that’s big and splashy.” They are looking at your big type. They will read that at a hundred miles an hour. It tells them their lives depend on you. Without you, innocent lives are lost. You’re giving me a problem to solve. That concept right there can make money.

What we have tended to do in the nonprofit world is we’ve tended to talk so much about how great the organization is, and here are our five cranky, weird programs that we do. Don’t you want to know all the details? Of course, nobody really does except staff.

What we have neglected to do is go to the donor and say, “Look, here’s the problem. I want you to solve it.” It’s that simple. If you do that, you’ll get money back. People want to help. They are biologically driven to help, and you should take advantage of that, frankly.

Let’s look at why donors are not that into you. It’s again the issue of what kind of . . . you’re always sending a message, but is it the right message? No, not a lot of times. A lot of times the message is exactly the wrong message. You could be mistaken.

I’ll give you an example here of what I mean by a charity egomaniac. It’s not that you intend to be. It’s just that your theory of communications is based on a misassumption. The theory is like you see here. Here’s Plan International. They asked me to audit them and give my opinions to them. They were very gracious about letting me share this with other people.

I got in front of them and said, “Okay, here’s your home page,” at the time, “and I labeled everything on it that is about Plan International, and all the programs, and how great you are, the results you get, etc., etc.” Then, I showed them here’s the one place on this screen where you are talking about the donor, and even there it’s in the context of Plan. What is Plan doing and how can you help?

Lord, you’ve got the donors in a cart that you’re dragging behind you. They’re throwing money at you. Yeah, you’re great. But that isn’t emotionally gratifying for us. You’re trying to tap into the wrong part of my brain. The part of my brain that is most likely to make a gift is my emotional seat. In fact, emotions drive all human decisions. That’s what neuroscientists tell us. The rational part of your brain, which is what this is talking to here, if we tell you 20 things about how great we are, you’ll make a gift. No, that does not work. The rational part of your brain is a cheapskate. The rational part of your brain will talk you out of making a gift.

The bottom line is lucrative donor communications are about how wonderful the donor is, not about how wonderful the charity is. This is part of the problem with your demented overlords and that they don’t know this. But if they had actually been in the commercial direct mail world, they’d certainly know it, because that’s what you see in sales. It’s not about the product or the service. It’s about how it’s going to change the life of the person purchasing it.

Another thing to understand about your communications is, basically, they are a mirror that you hold up to the donor, and you say, “Look at this. This is you. This is how great you are, and this is how much you are needed.” Your communications, if you think of them as a mirror like that, you’re going to start writing different stuff, and you’re going to start seeing a different result, which is what you’re really after.

You’re coming into my home. The purpose of a piece of direct mail is to come into the privacy of my home and have a conversation with me. Are you coming in and being a bad guest or a good guest? The bad guest comes in, plops down on the couch, and for 20 minutes doesn’t shut up about their life. They ask you nothing about you. They do not look around and say, “Oh, what a wonderful home you have. I feel so comfortable here. Thank you so much for your hospitality,” etc., etc. Most charities are bad guests coming into the privacy of my mailbox, and I look at it and go, “Oh, really, you think I’m going to be moved by this.”

The absent element is the donor centricity. To make me feel good; that is the purpose of coming into the privacy of my home. When you do, you have to be fast, because you’ve got, like, one to two seconds to get me liking you when you send me something. What would make me like you? Well, you have made me proud of myself. You have given me a great job to do, like fix a face, The Smile Train. You’ve made me feel wanted and needed.

You’ve entertained me for some reason in some way. I don’t mean song and dance, because sometimes we’re dealing with some very, very serious problems. Show me something I haven’t seen before. Make me happy to have encountered you.

Here’s the Eleanor Roosevelt Center. I love this. This is their envelope for their donor letter. It comes in the mail. Mail is very physical. You’re holding it. You’re looking at your own name and address and it’s there, and right adjacent to it is, “Lives You Have Touched, Lives You Are Changing.” I get a spirit of joy. You’ve given me the gift of joy.

“This is your victory,” says Emily’s List. That’s the gift of joy. “You’re pawsome,” says the Animal Rescue League of Boston. That’s the gift of joy to me.

Here’s the Planned Parenthood of Minnesota. They’re always in a battle with people in the legislature who want to shut down Planned Parenthood and limit access to reproductive health care. They’re reporting in their 2012 Annual Report right on the cover, “We are still open thanks to you.” That is giving your donor a job to do.

Welcome me into your merry band of trouble makers. Bring me into a group that is trying to get something done. St. Jude’s, send them almost any amount of money and you get this welcome pack back. It has a short letter in it from that girl, Marlo Thomas. “I’ve just received the marvelous news — you are the newest member of the St. Jude family.” Oh, P.S., “I know there are many charities that ask for your help. Please know how honored we are that you’ve chosen to support the work of St. Jude.”

We know that Marlo Thomas isn’t sitting by her pool in Palm Springs writing a letter for a $10 gift. It doesn’t matter. The emotion behind this, the gift of liking me and telling me that I am important is very motivating for what comes next, which you hope is another gift, etc.

You are in sales if you are a fundraiser, and you have a customer just like a salesperson does, and that customer is your donor. If you do not have happy customers, they will give elsewhere, and you’ll lose them. That goes back to that seven or eight out of ten first-time donors do not second gift.

What charities do is they focus on the thing that matters least to the donor. The charity, of course, it’s all about raking in the

[cash], but the donor knows that and starts to feel like an ATM machine. Please stop staring at my wallet, making me uncomfortable.

This is Alan Clayton. He’s a wild man in Scotland or in England working with Ken Burnett. They have got it absolutely right. Alan, this is his mantra; “Fundraising for the donor is not about money.” When people give you money, they’re giving you their surplus. They don’t need anything else, therefore, the money to the donor is the least important part. What is important is making your donors happy.

You do this in various ways, but most of them have to do with feelings. They want to feel like they’re something. They want to see their values, whatever those are, in action. They want to win. They want to feel loved. They want to feel good about themselves as a person. They want to feel smart. They want to feel needed and important.

This is what will keep them giving. It will keep them interested. It will keep them loyal. What is the lifetime value of a donor? Well, I know an organization, they got a piece of mail [ceased] back, it was an appeal, and so they looked the person up on the database. She had made her first gift at around age 55, and her last gift at age 101. That’s how you’d like a lot more of your donors to be with you in the relationship.


Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.