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Thursday, 4 August 2011

A checklist to help supercharge your fundraising appeals

By Damian O’Broin.

Checklists are great. They can make onerous tasks more manageable. And in a busy agency or fundraising department they can be a lifeline to ensure that work is done properly and to the highest standard.

So today I thought I’d share with you two of the checklists we use at Ask Direct to ensure that the campaigns we produce are as effective and compelling as possible.

If you use these 12 points to review the campaigns you produce, it will supercharge your fundraising appeals.

I’ll be honest, though. It can be very difficult to create appeals that tick all 12 of these boxes. We rarely manage to do it. But we’re always trying to get there.

I should also say that we didn’t invent these. We stole them from people who are far cleverer than we are.

The first checklist we stole from Patrick Renvoisé and Christophe Morin, who wrote a book called Neuromarketing (Thomas Nelson, Inc, USA, 2007). In it they argue that the part of brain responsible for action, what they call ‘the old brain’, only responds to six stimuli. And if you want to motivate people to take an action – such as giving money to your cause – you need to use these stimuli.

So here’s checklist no. 1, the Neuromarketing checklist.

1. Self-centred

The old brain only really cares about itself. So you need to make sure that your fundraising appeals are about the donor, not about your organisation. The donor should be the centre of the story, the hero of the piece. Your organisation is merely the trusty sidekick who helps her achieve whatever remarkable thing it is that you’re asking for her help with.

2. Contrast

Our old brains are finely attuned to contrast, difference and change. We notice the new. Does your appeal surprise? Is it unexpected? And does it move between the bad – whatever problem you’re trying to solve – and the good – the positive outcome you’re hoping for?

3. Tangible

The old brain isn’t good at abstract concepts. It likes things to be tangible and concrete. It doesn’t want to end poverty, but it would quite like to stop a child from going to school hungry. It doesn’t get environmental justice and sustainable development, but it would like clean drinking water and not to have an incinerator built next door.

4. Beginning and end

Our old brains pay most attention to what comes at the beginning and the end. The middle tends to be a bit of a mush. Think of your favourite novel. You can probably recall how it starts and how it ends, but I doubt you could relate in detail everything that happens in the 300 pages in between. So make sure the most important information is at the beginning and end of the appeal. And make sure there’s a good story to tie the rest of it all together.

5. Visual stimuli

Apparently the old brain doesn’t even understand words. So make sure you have strong visual stimuli to engage people and move them to action. Wherever possible use images of people, ideally looking straight at the camera.

6. Emotions

As they say in their book, ‘…researchers have demonstrated that [we] make decisions in an emotional manner and then justify them rationally.’ If you want people to take action, you have to engage with their emotions. Make sure your fundraising appeal packs an emotional punch. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t go out.

So that’s the first six. They’re the easy ones.

We also stole the next six. They come from Robert B Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (William Morris and Limited, Inc, USA 1993), who identified six ‘weapons of influence’. Here they are.

7. Reciprocation

Give something. Someone who receives a gift feels obligated to return the favour. This is why premiums – stickers, labels, pens – lift response. But this a lever of influence you need to use with care and prudence. You don’t want a sense of obligation to descend into resentment. Perhaps there are better things you can ‘give’ to your donor, such as special access, insider information – or even gratitude – that would cement and deepen the relationship and a shared sense of obligation to each other.

8. Commitment and consistency

Once people publicly commit to something, they tend to stay consistent with that commitment. I came across a great example of this recently at the Institute of Fundraising National Convention, when Craig Linton of the Greater London Fund for the Blind showed their donor pledge form. New donors area asked to sign a pledge (not compulsory) to ‘continue my regular gift for as long as I can afford it. I reckon these few words will really help to reduce their attrition rates.

9. Social proof

Social proof is hugely influential. We are surprisingly herd-like and will often take our lead from others. How can you demonstrate social proof in your appeals? One technique that has worked in telephone campaigns is to tell donors how much other people gave to the appeal. The donor is very likely to follow suit. Try to think of ways of showing the breadth of support for your cause. If people know other people ‘like them’ – people of the same gender, or from the same locality – support you, they’re more likely to do so themselves.

10. Liking

We prefer to say yes to people we like. So, is your organisation likeable? Do you seem human, genuine, friendly, caring? Do you demonstrate this with excellent donor care?

11. Authority

We are also remarkably easily swayed by authority. Do you come across as authoritative? Do you sound like you know what you’re talking about? Are you experts in your area? Interestingly, one way to convey this is by talking in detail and specifics, using concrete language. The more detail you provide, the more vivid your storytelling, the more likely it is that your donor will believe you. More on that here.

12. Scarcity

Scarcity and exclusivity are powerful motivators. But they can be hard to apply in general fundraising appeals – you often want as many people as possible to contribute. But you should always consider ways to employ scarcity. A J Leon, again at the Institute of Fundraising National Convention, had a great example where he limited the number of donors to a project to a hundred. And these 100 people got special access and benefits. It was a runaway success. You can watch it here

So there you have it: twelve things to aim for in your next fundraising appeal.


  1. Great post, Damian! Thanks for the shout. :)

  2. Thank you! I have been puzzled previously as how to Kick-start a ballet non-profit that will also co-ordinate the use of Hip Hop to teach the under served children and adults of Metro Atlanta.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    Cynthia McCranie
    Smyrna Ballet, Inc.

  3. Fantastic info. Thank you SO much.

  4. Great post. Thanks for the list!