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Your Fundraising Appeal Needs a Theory of Change

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Someone recently asked me what I think is the most common mistake made in fundraising appeals. I had an immediate answer. Most fundraising appeals lack a theory of change. 

Theory of change isn’t something we talk a lot about in fundraising and yet it plays a crucial role in helping us build a solid argument for giving. Before we talk about theory of change in fundraising appeals, let’s back up a few steps. 

Have you heard of theory of change before? Most commonly theory of change is talked about in the programs context. It’s essentially the model for how some experience, service, program, etc. will lead to a consistent outcome for participants. Theory of change models can be complex — like graduate student thesis-level complex. So sometimes when I talk to clients and students about using a theory of change in their annual fundraising appeal, they get a little weary. They think that bringing a theory of change into a fundraising appeal will make it too complex, too jargony. Really, that’s a danger we face with any fundraising appeal regardless of whether or not we bring a theory of change into it. 

For our purposes in fundraising, theory of change can be remarkably simple. A theory of change is the reason why taking an action or making a donation might plausibly make a difference about something the audience cares about. 

When my partner, Matt, and I teach email writing workshops for nonprofits, Matt has a slide that perfectly captures the problem of not having a theory of change.  He tells nonprofit professionals that when it comes to theory of change, don’t be the Underpants Gnomes. 

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Yes, the Underpants Gnomes from South Park! If you haven’t watched these episodes, here’s a synopsis. The Underpants Gnomes are stealing one of the character’s underpants overnight. When asked why, they present their plan. Step 1: Collect underpants, Step 2: ?, Step 3: Profit. 

This is a poorly thought out plan and yet, this is exactly what happens in so many fundraising appeals. 

Step 1: Make a donation, Step 2: ?, Step 3: You make a difference!

You are smarter than the Underpants Gnomes! Do the leg work in your appeal to explain step 2 because that is how donors will understand the impact of their gift. One of the easiest ways I know to ensure that you include Step 2 in your appeal is tack on the phrase “so that…” after your ask. You don’t have to keep those exact words in the final version of your appeal, but it will help you unearth the all important explanation for how donating makes a difference. 

Let’s look at an example. 

Here’s a preliminary call to action. Donate $50 to our animal shelter today to help animals in need.

As you now know, this call to action doesn’t tell us how our donation helps animals in need. 

Here’s a revised version of the call to action. Donate $50 to our animal shelter today so that we can do more community outreach to help animals in need. 

We’re not adding in a ton of additional information, but it’s just enough to paint a more complete picture for donors. 

Of course, the call to action isn’t the only place where your theory of change should appear in your appeal. Use the body of your appeal to explain your theory of change and build your clear, compelling case for donating.  

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  • Vanessa Chase Lockshin

    Hi Marjorie and Jennifer - Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this post. Donor-centered language is, of course, an important part of any fundraising appeal and I'm glad that you both pointed that out. What I hoped to underscore in this article is the importance of being specific and tangible in our calls to action. What I see happening too often in fundraising appeals is vague language that doesn't really connect donors to their impact.
  • Jennifer Fox

    I agree with Marjorie. This created an unnecessary divide between the donor and animals. The second attempt felt like a lot of added words and it didn't tell me how I was helping animals any more that the first more direct ask. What is community outreach? Am I helping you do a mailing? Am I helping you provide advertisements to spay and neuter? Am *I* really helping the animals? I am a donor to an animal shelter and I want to help the animals. My gifts are unrestricted so my head knows they may be used for operating but my heart just wants to know I am helping the animals.
  • Marjorie Fine

    disagree. Donors want to help animals, not you. You make a divide between you the shelter and them the money. This should read with the donor being the action hero and through her donation she makes something happen.
  • Vanessa Chase Lockshin

    Thanks for the comment, Natalia. It's always great to get affirmation that you're on the right track!
  • Steven Shattuck

    Right on!
  • Natalia Blair

    I felt as though i spent so much energy reading the entire article only to find out that this is something we've been doing with our appeals. sometimes simple language and straight forward content is better.
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