We talk a lot in fundraising circles about inspiring people to give.
Inspiration is a funny thing, however.
- Will we give more if we’re inspired by hope or fear?
- Can you even call fear inspiring?
Let’s leave those two questions aside for the moment (we’ll get back to them), and address that which I truly believe triggers the lion’s share of donors – especially major ones – to give.
It’s the answer to this question:
What would happen if your nonprofit disappeared?
The case of Notre Dame
Notre Dame Cathedral is iconic and symbolic. It’s much more than a cathedral and historic building. It means a lot of things to a lot of people. The nature of that meaning may differ from person to person, but… for many it represented the soul of a nation. And more. People really care about its existence.
Last week that existence was threatened. Big time.
People in Paris fell to their knees and silently prayed. They sang hymns. Tears fell from their cheeks. Throughout the world, people could not tear their eyes from their screens and Twitter feeds as they kept vigil.
Would it be saved? Please, please let it be saved!
Then, when the flames died down, what happened?
Within less than 24 hours almost a BILLION dollars had been pledged to rebuild it.
The French government had been trying to raise money for renovation and restoration for years. International architects, historians, archivists and more had been trying to get people to pay attention to the peril this world heritage site faced. But to little avail.
Until… people watched a stained glass window from the 13th century melt… a sky-topping spire topple… and a roof made of more than 1,000 oak trees be eaten alive.
Up until disaster hit them in the face, people couldn’t see, hear, feel, touch, taste or in any way really internalize the sense of the danger at hand. Renovating a cathedral seemed “nice,” not urgent.
Until it almost disappeared.
Is your nonprofit case for support scary enough?
Mary Cahalane recently penned a spot-on article titled Where is your dragon? She was talking about the huge, scary, enemy your organization fights.
All good stories, and all nonprofits, need an enemy to defeat.
And not just a namby-pamby one.
“I mean something very real, very big and right there.
Because if you want a rousing battle, you need a fight worth rousing for.”
— Mary Cahalane
Mary makes an excellent point.
Because if what you’re doing and striving for doesn’t matter to me, I’m not going to support you. Sure, I might think what you’re doing sounds noble and give you a pat you on the back. “Good for you!”
But I’m guessing you want to inspire more than a high five
I promised we’d get back to the question of inspiration.
If you want to inspire people to sing hymns on your behalf… to pray for your continued existence… to dig deep into their pockets to come up with a billion dollars (or whatever amount is needed for your inspiring project) — you need to stop and think about the meaning of this word. So let’s turn to Merriam Webster:
The Inspirational History of Inspiration
Inspiration has an unusual history in that its figurative sense appears to predate its literal one. It comes from the Latin inspiratus (the past participle of inspirare, “to breathe into, inspire”) and in English has had the meaning “the drawing of air into the lungs” since the middle of the 16th century. This breathing sense is still in common use among doctors, as is expiration (“the act or process of releasing air from the lungs”). However, before inspiration was used to refer to breath it had a distinctly theological meaning in English, referring to a divine influence upon a person, from a divine entity; this sense dates back to the early 14th century. The sense of inspiration often found today (“someone or something that inspires”) is considerably newer than either of these two senses, dating from the 19th century.
I often use the terminology of “inspiring philanthropy” as a substitute for the less uplifting “fundraising.” Why? Because the former connects people to values and aspirations while the latter connects people only to money.
Also, inspiration is about feeling If you can’t make me feel in my gut… heart… soul… that what you’re doing is among the most important things that needs doing, right now, then I’m not likely to give to you.
“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”
— Maya Angelou
Does hope or fear inspire?
I would say both. Let’s turn back to Merriam Webster:
1: to be afraid of: expect with alarm fear the worst
2: to have a reverential awe of fear God
Terrors are awful, yet also fill us with awe. Fear is something marked with emotion. Hope comes in when we imagine how we might alleviate that fear. So they’re tied together.
Use fear first, to set forth the impending danger. The black and white problem. The issue that makes me say either “Yes I’ll help” or “No I won’t.”
Then use hope to inspire me to join in the solution. To enthuse me to eradicate that which is terrifying. Maybe it’s children on the streets. Maybe it’s hunger. Maybe it’s polluted rivers. Maybe it’s cancer. Maybe it’s a world without art.
Side note: The word “enthusiasm” comes from two Greek words (‘en’ means “within you”; ‘theos’ means God). As a philanthropy facilitator, your job is to help donors find the ‘God’ within them – the power, spirit, caring, concern, compassion, hope and fear that may prompt them to make an investment in your mission.
What would happen if your nonprofit disappeared?
I’m not suggesting you need to set your nonprofit on fire to raise money. But you do need to ignite people’s imagination. You do need to make a case for support that helps people confront the problem in such a way they are moved to help you deal with it.
Emotionally, not intellectually.
I was speaking with a client this morning about this very issue. The answer I got when I asked: “What would happen if you were to cease to exist?” was decidedly unmoving and not the least bit scary.” My client said: “It would make a homogenous profession even less diverse.”
Okay. That’s not a primal scream raison d’être.
Sorry, it’s just not. Well-intentioned, sure. But it’s too unclear. Too broad. Too low-pressure. I don’t sense the life and death stakes. Your disappearance does not present a problem I feel a need to confront.
In Mary Cahalane’s article she wrote: “Help us meet our annual fund goals” is not a dragon. It’s a little plastic salamander. It might bother someone if they trip on it. But it’s no reason to drop everything and get out the checkbook.”
My client’s answer was something around which I couldn’t really wrap my head, let alone my heart. It could apply to so many different professions… so many different businesses… and, gee whiz, so what? The real ‘case’ for support needs to dig deeper.
WHY is lack of diversity in the profession a problem? And why is this a problem I should prioritize as worth solving?
There are SO many problems. And SO many charities. What is it about your problem that’s relevant right now? And what is it about the way you address that problem that makes it the very best solution out there?
What if you don’t address a ‘scary’ problem?
Honestly, if what you’re doing doesn’t frighten you in some way I’d wager you wouldn’t be doing it.
The trick is simply to figure out how to talk about your problem.
EXAMPLE: For four years I worked as director of development for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. We talked with major donors about giving scholarships to aspiring musicians. We talked with smaller donors about supporting an array of free concerts. All very ‘nice.’ But not enough to inspire fire in a donor’s belly. Especially a major donor. Until we hit on what became our slogan: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Donors were asked to imagine a world without music. Scary!
Sometimes you have a tricky situation. Your mission isn’t life-threatening or global. Everyone in the world listens to music, so this plays well to the collective imagination. But what if your mission is narrow? Or the problem you address is more evergreen than urgent?
EXAMPLE: Let’s say you run a local equine therapy program (I picked that because I’ve had three different clients that fall into this category). This isn’t a mission that will speak to everyone. But for those with whom it resonates, it can be super inspiring. Truth be told, equine therapy has been successfully integrated into treatment programs for people being treated for substance abuse, addiction, behavior, mood and eating disorders, learning differences, ADD/ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, grief/loss, trauma, sex addiction, compulsive gambling, bipolar, depression and related conditions. So… these are the scary problems you highlight first. Then, you talk about how your solution may be the only one some of your neighbors who confront these problems will be willing to accept. Without your program, people will suffer. For life.
Often one of the best ways to talk about your problem in a resonant way is to simply tell a story. Notre Dame on fire was a story. People had a front row watching it unfold, and many wanted a front row helping to repair the damage they’d witnessed. Give your donor’s a window into which they can visualize the problem you address.
Offer donors a front row seat so they can really see, and understand, the problem at hand.
What’s the ‘boo-boo’ you’re trying to make all better?
Okay, it’s likely worse than a ‘boo-boo.’ But I want you to think on a primal, emotional level. Whether you work on a grand or small scale, you’re trying to repair something. To balance what is out of whack. To perfect what is imperfect. To wipe the tears away or prevent the tears from forming. Seth Godin speaks to this in Make things better:
1. Better implies that what we have right now is imperfect. Better requires change, and change is scary. Better might be in the eye of the beholder. Better is an assertion, one that requires not just the confidence to say it, but the optimism to believe that it’s possible.
2. Make implies that it’s up to us. Someone needs to make it better, and it might just be you.
Everything in our built world – the water we drink, the food we eat, the place we live – if it’s good, it’s good because someone, a generation or two ago, decided to make it better. And if it’s not good, or not good enough, only our action is going to make it better.”
Look at what you do as an exercise – a mission really – in making things better.
Talk to the people likely to share your fears about the specific problem, and who also share the hope your unique solution can create meaningful change.
At the end of the day, most people want to create outsized impact and participate in something greater than themselves. You just need to show them the way.
The fire in Notre-Dame has caused many, both inside and outside France, to feel not only sadness, but also a sense of participating in something greater: to reach out, in the spirit of the third man, to help rebuild this glorious building of faith and symbol of civilization.
— Letter written to the New York Times April 16, 2019
Think about what your fire could be, and how people would react to news that fire had destroyed your organization.
Would people care enough to sing a hymn of sadness, prayer and hope?
If they would, it’s your responsibility now to assure that fire doesn’t happen.
As a nonprofit leader, only YOU can prevent fires.
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Images courtesy of Dina Dee and Eric Perlin from Pixabay
This article (lesson) is inspiring! Makes me want to go out and find out what the “fire” is for our donors. Thank you!