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The Lesson of Cavemen for Fundraisers

If you want to increase response to your charitable fundraising efforts, it may not occur to you to read up on prehistoric culture. But, surprisingly, this is exactly where you can learn about a psychological phenomenon that I call the “Urge to Help.” And you can trigger this urge and add amazing power to your appeals.

First, let’s take a little walk down … way down … memory lane.

Thousands of years ago, when the world was sparsely populated, our ancestors lived in small tribal groups, usually no larger than 150. Everyone in any given tribe knew everyone else in the tribe. Every day was a struggle for survival. It was remarkable to reach the age of 30. Being in a group meant safety and a better chance for successful hunting and food gathering.

Each tribe member was important. The survival of the group depended on the well-being of each member. So giving aid was a practical response to ensure survival. Generation after generation, this tendency to help our “family” continued and became entrenched in our psyche.

Today our social situation is different. We live among not hundreds, but thousands and millions of others. However, our instincts haven’t caught up with our new circumstances. The Urge to Help, intended for our tribemates, now spreads naturally to our fellow human beings in specific moments of need. And given the correct situation, this instinct is automatically triggered.

Mmm … do you smell a formula brewing? Good. Though I’m generally not fond of 1-2-3 formulas, this is one instance where such a formula works. So given what we know about the Urge to Help, let’s see how to trigger this instinct and use it to our advantage:

· Create an urgent situation that involves your prospect. A general, all-purpose cry for help won’t fully trigger the urge, nor will ongoing suffering or need. Find a specific situation that requires immediate attention and use it to frame your appeal.

· Show how a real person is in trouble and needs help. Don’t talk about masses. Even if you’re appealing for funds that will benefit millions, talk about one person and how that specific person needs help.

· Share details so your prospect can get to know and care about that person. Make the person real by using a name and dropping in relevant facts about his or her life. Help your prospect relate to this person as someone who easily could be a family member or friend.

· Help your prospect visualize and understand the problem. If it’s direct mail or an ad, paint a word picture your prospect can visualize. If it’s television, show the actual situation. Put your prospect right in the middle of it. Yes, you want your prospect to feel emotions, but a sense of reality is more important than a string of emotional words.

· Explain exactly what needs to be done to help. Don’t generalize or beat around the bush. Once you’ve presented a specific problem, suggest a specific solution. Tell your prospect exactly what is needed. Ask for a specific amount or at least a specific minimum. Show exactly how the money will solve the problem.

· Make your prospect feel the urgency of the situation. Show someone’s life or welfare hanging in the balance. Make it clear that this person needs help now, not a month from now. Talking about past successes is fine, but the current problem must appear to need immediate action from your prospect.

· Explain the consequences if help doesn’t arrive in time. When someone fights the urge, the result is guilt. Use it to your advantage. Don’t lecture or chastise, but do be explicit about what will happen if the person doesn’t get help soon.

Remember that this is a specific formula to trigger a specific instinct. It is not the only way to frame your appeals. And we’re talking mainly about charitable appeals. Raising funds for other purposes, such as a political group, is a little different. Charitable fundraising is about helping others.

And merely triggering the Urge to Help isn’t everything. You must enable your prospect to act on this urge by observing sound direct marketing principles to ease response and eliminate doubts.

Finally, consider the specific appeal and make necessary adjustments to your message. For example, if you’re mailing to donors regularly, you can’t present one calamity after another or you’ll lose credibility.

It’s interesting what you can learn by diving into a pile of old books, isn’t it? Guess I should have actually read them while I was in college.

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