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How Fundraising Words Are Different from Sales Words

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Excerpted from The Storytelling Fundraiser by Professor Russell James. The full book (along with many other fundraising resources) is available for free at Encourage Generosity.  

Isn’t fundraising just sales? Whether it’s a used car or insurance or scholarships, sales is sales, right?

Not exactly. Fundraising is different from sales. Fundraising is different because charitable decisions are different. They’re different at a fundamental, neurological, chemical level.

What do the brain and the chemistry tell us?

Fundraising is not just logic and math. It’s not just a market/contract transaction. It’s about social emotion. Understanding this can change our words.

Fundraising is about social emotion. It’s about building family/social relationships. How do we do this? We already know how. Think about it. How do we build a stronger relationship with a relative? We call. We write. We visit. How do we build stronger donor relationships? Same answer. We call. We write. We visit.

And when we call, or write, or visit a family member, what words do we use? Do we use formal, technical, contract words? No. Instead, we use social, conversational, family words. We use simple words and stories.

Generosity and sharing come from the social emotion system. Family/social language triggers the right frame of mind. It works. What is family/social language? Ask this simple question: “Would you have used this phrase in a normal conversation with your grandmother?”

No? Be careful. You might be slipping into technical, formal, or contract language. This language can shift the listener’s frame of mind. It can shift to a detached, defensive, market-exchange perspective. This inhibits sharing. In fundraising experiments, these word choices can make a big difference.

How formal words fail in fundraising

Complex charitable planning (“planned giving”) can offer enormous benefits to donors. Effective fundraisers understand these options. They understand how to help their donors. But there’s a danger. It’s easy to slip into technical or contract terms. Does it matter? One experiment tested this.

People read identical descriptions of a charitable remainder trust. The only difference was this.

One began with the phrase, “Make a transfer of assets ….”

The other began with, “Make a gift ….”

The share of people “definitely interested now” in donating this way also differed. It more than tripled for the second description.

Another experiment tested even more formal language. One description of a gift annuity began with, “Enter into a contract with a charity where you transfer your cash or property ….”

The other began with, “Make a gift ….”

The share “definitely interested now” in the gift annuity also differed. It more than quadrupled when switching to the simple language.

This isn’t just a theoretical issue. That last formal phrasing was taken from a popular fundraising brochure. It had already been used by hundreds of charities.

Another set of experiments showed the same result in a different way. Some people read about a complex charitable gift including its formal name. Others read the same description, but without the formal name. In every case, removing the technical, formal name increased interest.

One test simply removed the name “charitable remainder trust.” Otherwise, the gift description stayed the same. This simple act more than doubled those “definitely interested now” in the gift. Removing the name “charitable gift annuity” also dramatically increased interest. Removing “remainder interest deed” did the same.

The results were all consistent. Removing formal, financial, contract terms increased interest in the gift.

Formal words? Not interested.

Another set of experiments asked, “What would you like to read about on your favorite charity’s website? Formal, insider terms did not fare well.

For example, people did not want to read about “Planned giving.” But they did want to read about “Other ways to give.” Even more, they wanted to read about “Other ways to give smarter.” Changing to this phrasing quadrupled those, “definitely interested in reading more.”

People didn’t want to read about “Planned giving.” (Only 4.5% were “definitely interested in reading more.”) They didn’t want to read about “Gift planning.” (Only 3.4% were “definitely interested in reading more.”)

They wanted to read about “Other ways to give.” (15.6% were “definitely interested in reading more.”) Even more, they wanted to read about “Other ways to give smarter.” (19.5% were “definitely interested in reading more.”)

People were then asked what they expected to see. Did they expect to read about:

  • Gifts in wills
  • Living trusts
  • Gifts from IRAs
  • Gift annuities
  • Bank account transfer-on-death titles
  • Gifts of stocks, bonds, and real estate
  • Capital gain, income, and estate taxes

The result was a shock. When people clicked on “Other ways to give” or “Other ways to give smarter,” they were just as likely to expect this full list of topics as when they clicked on “Planned giving” or “Gift planning.”

Conversational descriptions worked. Standard, industry “insider” terms didn’t.

In yet another study, 23% of people were interested in making “a gift to charity in my will.”

Only half that percentage were interested in making “a bequest gift to charity.”

In different studies with different tests, the answer is always the same. Introducing giving with formal, technical, contract terms fails. Simple words work.

Effective fundraising story evokes a clear image that produces social emotion and avoids error detection. This two-part goal reflects the two brain systems:

  1. The social-emotion system is the engine. It drives giving motivation.
  2. The math, logic, finance system is the brake. It detects errors that can interrupt giving motivation.

Different words trigger different systems. They can alter the donor’s frame of mind. Formal or contract words trigger a market/exchange frame of mind. This world is logical, mathematical, and detached. It is a world of defensive, protective, or aggressive competition.

Social and family settings use simple, conversational words. This is the world of social emotion and social bonding. This is the cooperative world of sharing.

Sales strategies can be useful in fundraising. But fundraising is not just sales. It’s different. It’s different at a fundamental, neurological, chemical level. Family/social relationships encourage philanthropy. Market/exchange relationships don’t.

Use words that trigger the right mindset. Use words that fit the right world.

Want a steady stream of help for using the right words (and pictures and everything else) to keep your fundraising strong? Join The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You’ll get the tools, the information, and the supporting community that will take you to new places in your fundraising career. Join the waiting list now and you’ll be the first to hear when the doors open again!

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