Mission Mayhem: How NOT to Ask for Money

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Non-profits assume their potential contributors will see the good they will do and generally focus on a theme – a particular disease, a philanthropic cause, and so on. New research shows that success involves more than just generating sympathy for the group’s charitable objective: asking for money to increase awareness of the cause can actually reduce donations.

study by the University of Michigan‘s Robert W. Smith and Norbert Schwarz showed that one kind of “ask” was problematic. If a charity focused on “raising awareness,” and the charity was well known to the potential donor, then donations were lower than if they highlighted other goals. In essence, it seems, if you are quite aware of a charity, you are less likely to donate when “increasing awareness” is a stated goal (even if that happens to be an important and real objective). There’s an implicit assumption that if you know about a cause, lots of other people do too, and spending money on raising awareness is wasted.

Risky Missions

I hunted around the Web a bit, and found a few examples of strategies that might be risky considering the study findings. For example, the Pike’s Peak Community Foundation is promoting an initiative called Upadowna, which states:

“Our mission is to raise awareness and appreciation for the outdoors by providing fun and educational adventures for all ages and experience levels.”

That certainly sounds like what Smith and Schwarz found to be risky, particularly since many target donors may be familiar with the parent organization and the value of outdoor recreation. The organization could choose to emphasize other aspects of its work. For instance, the site notes the organization “was founded with the mission of getting folks off of the couch and out into the wild,” and their original motto is, “”Up a mountain, Down a beer.” Unfortunately, it appears that a “mission statement committee,” or perhaps a consultant, decided a more formal, impressive goal was needed, no doubt to improve fundraising and sound more serious. Bad decision.

Amusingly, it looks like the Upadowna logo got a makeover to go with the fancy mission statement – on the Upadowna site itself, their logo features their symbolic yeti twice – once hiking, and once downing a beer. Or perhaps a soft drink.

No Strength in Numbers

Even when mission statements don’t talk about creating awareness, it’s rarely a good idea to focus on them as key fundraising elements. The general rule for maximizing donations is to personalize the cause, and mission statements never do that. Mission statements almost always focus on broad, impersonal goals, and our brains simply don’t respond to that kind of appeal. Telling a donor her contribution will help save thousands of starving children will almost always be less effective than focusing on a single child in danger. As I described in Nonprofit Marketing: The Power of Personalization, an appeal illustrated with a photo of two children garnered 15% less in donations than one with just one child. A photo that included eight children performed even worse – just half of the single-child donations.

My advice to non-profits is to keep the mission statement in the background when crafting a fundraising appeal. A well-defined mission statement may be necessary from a strategic standpoint and for dealing with large or sophisticated donors, but it’s unlikely to stimulate higher donation amounts. And, unless you are an unknown organization dealing with a problem that nobody has heard of, don’t focus on “raising awareness” as an important goal in your literature.

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