Winning the Small Game

Tom Ahern

Every word matters. Some words matter more.

Which pronoun raises more money?

[  ] We
[  ] You

Organization-focused vs. donor-focused

“We need you!”

It’s efficient: two pronouns; one verb (the call to action); an exclamation point; and inescapable eye contact with a finger-pointing British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, in 1914 a revered imperial icon of military masculinity.

This blunt recruiting message helped mobilize 6 million British troops in World War One; 600,000 then died in the conflict.

So, what do you think? Which of the two pronouns did the most to move young men to enlist? Hint: the winner’s the one in bigger type.

The word “you” is different. It’s not just a pronoun. It’s more like a sudden hand clap. Merely mentioning “you” forces my brain — and yours — to pay more attention automatically, without our consent.

The word “you” makes everything suddenly personal.

Your fundraising success will depend on how you talk

There are two ways you can talk to your “base” (your current and potential donors, members, supporters, volunteers, etc.).

Way #1 is organization-centered: “We do this amazing program. We do that amazing program. Oh, by the way, if you have sent in a gift, thanks!”

Way #2 is donor-centered: “With your help, all these amazing programs happen. And without your help, they are not possible.”

The big difference is which comes first, “we” or “you.”

Here’s my promise, backed by solid recent research and years of experience: when “you” comes first, you’ll raise more money. When “we” comes first, you’ll raise less.

In one experiment, donations to a children’s hospital foundation skyrocketed 1,000% when its newsletter changed the way it talked.

When the newsletter stopped bragging first and foremost about the excellence of the medicine and switched instead to talking about what a difference donors made in the lives of sick kids, contributions per issue leaped from $5,000 to $50,000.

That $50,000 in gifts per issue became this newsletter’s new normal. In the decade that followed, the foundation’s newsletter brought in $2 million in donations. If it had stuck to its old way of talking, it would have raised merely $200,000 over the same period.

The psychology’s not complicated: when you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice back. Dr. Robert Cialdini calls the phenomenon “reciprocity.” It’s one of his famous “Six Principles of Persuasion.”

Assume you’re doing it wrong

I’ve analyzed thousands of appeals, websites, newsletters, social media, thanks, invitations, annual reports, videos, etc. from countless charities across the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland.

In much of what I see, nonprofits choose to speak in way #1. The charity comes first, the donor comes last. The charity’s work dominates, the donor’s contribution is nice but subordinate.

As a fundraising tactic, hogging the credit (way #1) limits your success. You’ll gather just the lowest of low hanging fruit. If you want the full harvest, you must freely, without restraint, and with delighted abandon share the credit with your donors (way #2).