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Worried about “donor as hero” fundraising? Here’s another way to think about it

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Trigger Warning: this post contains examples of fundraising that address child sex trafficking.

Imagine this. As a smart fundraiser, you’ve put together a compelling appeal. It has an emotional story. A tangible offer. And direct asks in all the key places.

Then it goes through the approvals process. The committee thoroughly edits your carefully crafted appeal. The end result sounds like it came from a corporate machine. It’s no longer a warm, personal, emotional message from one person to another.

As a fundraising copywriter, I’ve been there many times.

One of the most common edits during this process relates to the perception of white saviourism. My definition of white saviourism is this:

The idea that charitable donors are only helping people in a self-serving way reinforces patriarchal, colonial, and white supremacist attitudes and systems.

This creates difficulty for many fundraisers. Best-practice fundraising uses donor-centred copywriting techniques and tactics. This includes showing the need and making the donor the hero of the fundraising story. Thousands of direct mail tests over the years have proven that this works to raise money.

But many believe such narratives strip power and agency from the very people we’re hoping to help.

While this most often comes up in fundraising for international development and poverty-fighting organizations, it is also an issue for many other types of organizations. It’s an issue almost no fundraiser can afford to ignore.

It can apply in any situation where donors are perceived to be in a position of power and privilege. The idea is that donors unfairly get to feel good about helping those who are less fortunate than themselves. Because donors are part of and contribute to an unfair system — even if it’s unconsciously done. It’s this unfair system that keeps people in need in their disadvantaged state.

I believe the challenge for fundraisers boils down to this:

“Donor-as-hero” narratives have been very effective at raising money for charities. When we don’t use these messages, we raise less. Testing shows it could be a lot less. This could mean less money going to people living in poverty. But when we use these messages, we may be propping up a patriarchal, white, colonialist system.

It can feel like you’re caught in a no-win situation, where you have to choose between fundraising that perpetuates injustice … and fundraising that’s effective.

I don’t believe we’re stuck with only those two choices, where all we can do is pick the “lesser evil.” I believe we can find a meaningful way forward.

I’ll be frank: As of the time of writing this article, I haven’t seen any workable or scalable ways to resolve this tension.

I’m aware of a few charities experimenting with alternatives to need-focused and saviourist language. This could be through the use of inclusive language, rights-based language, or strengths-based language1 .

Some fundraisers have claimed success with these approaches. But there is not yet a robust body of testing in this area across different causes and sizes of charities. The results I’ve seen to date have been a mixed bag. That’s not to say there won’t ever be breakthroughs. If we persist in working on the issue, we will likely find very good solutions.

As a fundraiser who writes appeals, I can’t offer a silver bullet, but I have some ideas.

As yet my ideas are untested although I’m in discussions with a couple of charities to implement A/B split tests. However, my thoughts are rooted in the evidence-based research of philanthropic psychology, pioneered by Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang in the UK2.

Fundraising can focus on donor wellbeing

Philanthropic psychology focuses on using donor identity and wellbeing. Touted as the next step in donor-centricity, it’s based on the psychology of giving rather than the psychology of buying.

Donor identity is used to give donors the best experience of giving and receiving love to maximise their wellbeing. So when donors feel better about themselves, they’re more likely to continue giving.

What does that mean in practice? According to research, here are some of the psychological needs that contribute to wellbeing:

  • Autonomy – people need to feel like they’re independent and in control of their own lives.
  • Competence – people need to feel like they’re good at what they’re doing and that they’ve made a positive impact.
  • Connection – people need warm, loving relationships with other people, to feel part of a community.

(For more info, Google “Self-Determination Theory.”)

If a fundraising message can help donors feel more autonomy, competence, and connection, that will hopefully result in more donations.

Let’s look at an example. Below is a typical sample of an appeal letter headline and lead written according to standard direct response principles.

Original Appeal

“They locked me in a room until a man would come…”

Jamila had to service over 15 men a day…

Fight child sex slavery with your monthly gift.


Dear <FIRSTNAME>

    Can you imagine selling your precious daughter to a brothel?

    Jamila’s family could not afford to feed all of their four children. They “sold” her to a broker who said he could find a good job for her. Jamila says:

    “The broker said I could earn a lot of money with a nice family. But he didn’t take me to a home where I could be a maid. It was a place with a lot of other girls. They locked me in a room and only opened the door when a man wanted me.” 

    Jamila was 16 when she was sold… but some girls are as young as 5 when they become sex slaves.

    As someone who loves children, I’m sure you’ll agree no girl should be forced into sex slavery and lose her childhood.

   With your monthly gift of $50, you will be fighting against child sex slavery for precious children like Jamila.

I’ve written many successful appeals along similar lines. It’s need-oriented and emotional. Many would argue it portrays Jamila as helpless and without agency over her life, and that it promotes saviourism. The donor is being asked to be the saviour who will save Jamila and other girls like her from their plight.

Contrast this with the sample below. It’s rewritten in a way intended to both boost donor wellbeing and use donor identity in a manner that shares agency with Jamila.

Rewritten Appeal

“They locked me a room until a man would come…”

Could you be strong enough to survive
servicing over 15 men a day like Jamila?

Kind and caring people like you are needed!

Your compassion with a monthly gift helps Jamila to fight child sex slavery and build a new life for herself.


Dear <FIRSTNAME>

    Today, you can give a girl the power to fight back.

    To fight back against sex slavery.

    To fight back against those who want to exploit girls as young as 5.

    To fight back against the poverty that forces a family to sell their daughter into a brothel. Because can you imagine being so desperate as a parent? You don’t want to sell your child but you can’t feed all four of your children. So you feel you have no choice… especially when the broker tells you he can find a good job for your daughter. Jamila says:

    “The broker said I could earn a lot of money with a nice family. But he didn’t take me to a home where I could be a maid. It was a place with a lot of other girls. They locked me in a room and only opened the door when a man wanted me.”

    Like Jamila, I’m sure you’ll agree that no girl should be forced into sex slavery. Will you respond to her call to fight for the rights of girls to grow up free from exploitation?

Your compassion with a monthly gift of $50 means you help fight against child sex slavery for precious children like Jamila.

    She was strong enough to survive sex slavery… now your generosity helps her to heal from her trauma, develop a livelihood and help stop other girls from becoming child sex slaves.

Let’s look at what has changed between the original and the rewritten version…

1. Donors’ most common moral identity traits highlighted.

The red text in the rewritten sample highlights moral identity traits that donors themselves have used to describe themselves in donor surveys. Using traits such as “caring,” “kind,” and “compassionate” in appeal copy helps to boost donors’ feelings of wellbeing. This can dramatically increase charitable giving3.

Also, note one key difference in the copy approach: By using moral identity in this way, we are acknowledging the donor for who they are vs. what they’ve done.

There is a difference between asking a donor for “your compassionate monthly gift” as opposed to “your compassion with a monthly gift.” The former emphasises the donor’s action of giving —that is, the gift itself is compassionate. The latter emphasises the donor’s identity as a giver — the donor herself is compassionate.

2. Need placed in the context of donor wellbeing.

We’ve told the same story of need. But rather than only putting the need into the context of an emotional story, we’ve positioned the need in the context of helping the donor to feel more autonomy and competence (refer to blue text).

Rather than just feeling anger and outrage over Jamila’s situation, we use “fight back” language coupled with statements that donors would agree with: fighting sex slavery, fighting people who exploit girls, fighting poverty. This encourages feelings of connection with others who want the same things.

It’s also intended to help the donor to feel more autonomy and competence.

And it positions Jamila as someone who can do her part to fight back too as opposed to passively waiting for a saviour to help her.

3. Connection strengthened between donor, charity, and participant.

The original focuses on a common donor identity as someone who loves children. The latter is intended to help the donor forge a stronger connection directly with Jamila. Rather than being in a “saviour” position as someone who loves children, the donor is now someone who shares a common belief with Jamila.

Does this different framing “solve” the saviourism issue?

I think it does because it “replaces” the old framing of a person in need being rescued by the donor with known truths about human psychology. Instead of just stripping out the need story and leaving the appeal with little or nothing to prompt donors to action, it presents a different approach to motivating action.

But whether this solves the problem is for you to decide. You may feel it doesn’t do enough. Or that it has lost something essential.

The jury is still out on its actual effectiveness, but there are early indications that this works. It may even be more effective than the traditional approach.

In upcoming posts, I will show you some more ways to tackle the saviourism issue in promising new ways.

Here are the references shared in this post:

June Steward is a fundraising writer in Australia. She publishes the popular June’s Fundraising Letter

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