Here's a thoughtful piece by an advertising guy, Jay Suhr, on “new rules of engagement” for marketers.

Smart fundraisers have already adopted much of what he says … think about marketing to individuals, not groups; avoid the mushy middle; obsess about relevance. Following maxims like these will lead to more effective fundraising messages and targeting.

But he made one simple observation that — even though we've all heard it over and over by now — cannot be overstated: “Our audiences are incredibly sophisticated.” Says Suhr:

“(Our audiences) understand the marketing context of communications. Not only do they know there's a man behind the curtain, but they know his motivations. Let's be upfront with the people we're talking to and not try to disguise marketing messages.”

So what are the implications of raising funds (especially via direct marketing channels) from “incredibly sophisticated” donor prospects? Consider these:

They do indeed recognize fundraising for what it is … an appeal for something you want from them, usually money, occasionally time. After all the fluff and histrionics, just how clear, specific and straightforward has your copy been about how you intend to use their gift and what it will accomplish? For most fundraisers, the “hype versus deliverables” balance in messaging will need to shift.

They're skeptical of being “sold” … even though the fundraiser is usually initiating the overture, donors want to feel that they have freely made the intellectual and emotional commitment to give. Yes, there are tried and true motivators that fundraisers should use. Greater donor sophistication doesn't mean that human nature has changed or that fundraising doesn't require seduction. But more and more, rhetorical manipulation and pure “technique” is bound to fail. The new line between artful persuasion and off-putting manipulation is something each fundraiser will need to find.

They are more aware of choices … it's hard to imagine a cause these days that doesn't include multiple advocates making different (or worse, the same) claims and offering a variety of strategies. Do you think a donor gives these days to “any” cancer research group, “any” enviro group, “any” child sponsor group that knocks on her door or invades his mailbox? Fundraisers need to learn how to differentiate their organizations more strikingly and convincingly … and yes, aggressively, or you'll fail.

They are more attuned to performance … studies indicate that donors today are giving less out of an old-fashioned sense of duty and more from a “thoughtful” posture of wanting concrete results. Fundraisers need to bring forward historic results, and, for a new organization lacking a track record, you need to put forward a compelling strategy that offers promise of doing better than the established players.

Ironically, the increasing focus on performance doesn't guarantee “head of the line” status to established groups. Indeed, it makes them rather vulnerable if they can't document tangible progress “after all these years.” Indeed, failing to see progress, the sophisticated donor is as likely to launch his or her own effort as to support an existing (read: “not getting the job done”) one.

They're more focused on “how” than “what” … with lots of organizations aimed at the same goals, with prospects aware of choice and wanting results, the “how” of your organization (i.e., your winning strategy or unique modus operandi) becomes paramount. Sympathy with the cause is necessary, but no longer sufficient. Successful fundraisers must communicate the “better path” their organization is blazing.

It's getting tougher, not easier, isn't it?!

Tom

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