When raising funds, mind the empathy gap

mind-the-gap picture

As development staff faced with a June 30 fiscal year-end prepare for the last quarter rush toward their fundraising goals, questions about how best to craft appeal letters are showing up (again) in my email inbox. The queries are pretty much the same from year to year, as are my replies.

Q: Is a heart-warming story the way to go or do donors prefer being asked with facts?

A: Yes and yes. As the saying goes, different strokes for difference folks and since both preferences are represented within your donor base, combine story and stats.

Q: Should the year-end appeal highlight the people served by the organization or is it better to stress ROI for donors?

A: Yes and yes. Same as above.

Q: Is a one-page letter better than a two-pager?

A: If you’ve got enough good stuff to fill two (or more) pages, go for it. If not, stop with one.

Q: Maybe it’s time to skip paper and go directly to an email campaign. What do you think?

A: Unless the whole of the organization’s donor base is under the age of 30 (and maybe not even then), you’re not yet ready to go paperless.

Now an article in the latest issue of The Chronicle Board Report suggests that before whipping out last year’s answers to this year’s questions, you (and I) need to know who it is to whom you are appealing with your year-end appeal. Specifically, it’s important that you understand the gender profile of your organization’s donor base.


So advises a research team out of Stanford University based on responses by 1,715 potential donors to four different cases for support for a fictitious charity, the Coalition to Reduce Poverty.

The efficacy pitch stated that ‘more than 98 percent of donations go on to directly benefit the poor.’ The conformity pitch suggested that many other donors were getting involved. The injustice appeal stated that people ‘born into poverty never had the opportunities that other Americans had.’ The fourth pitch, designed to trigger self-interest, included the statement, ‘Poverty weighs down our interconnected economy, exacerbating many social problems like crime.’

In sorting the data, the researchers spotted a clear “empathy gap” in how men and women respond to fundraising appeals. Males, it seems, tend toward pitches based on self-interest while females lean in the direction of appeals to the heart.

Here’s my take-away for folks in the fundraising trenches. Before drafting your year-end appeal, think about the donors with whom you’ve interacted over the past 12 months. Better yet, if you’re able to do so, run an analysis of the data base. Then skew your letter in the direction of the majority gender.

There’s wisdom in minding the empathy gap.

For more about asking and donor preferences, see:

If donors pipe their own tunes, what are fundraiser pipers to do?

Seeing + believing = more generous giving

In fundraising as in life, variety is the spice


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