How To Transport Your Donor Into The World’s Suffering

I will never forget my visit to the city garbage dump of Manila.  We had a major project among the people who lived there and made their living out of sorting garbage.

The stench was beyond bearable.  There was acidic smoke everywhere.  And the dust wanted to choke the breath out of us.  Even more dramatic were the living conditions, the health of the kids, the look of despair in the eyes of a mother who wanted to do better.

I wanted to run away.  But I couldn’t, because we were there to gather project information and stories to take to our donors back in the States.

I had read the project descriptions and internalized all the technical information about the need, the strategies, the outcomes and the timeline.  I had read success stories that showed how a garbage picker’s life could be transformed.  I had all the facts.

But nothing had prepared me for actually being there.  It was terrible.  And I broke down and sobbed at what I saw, smelled and heard.

It was then I realized that my job as a fundraiser was to transport the donor right into the program action.  I was supposed to use words, stories and pictures to create, as best as possible, a mental and emotional experience so that the donor could, from afar, live the experience.

Now, there is quite a bit of controversy on this point in the fundraising world.  Some say that describing how things really are is manipulation.  It is too emotional.  So, fundraisers holding to this philosophy dress up need in pretty clothes in a nice politically correct way and then dispense it to their donors who, much to the fundraisers’ surprise, are usually not really interested in what they have to say.

And here’s the reason.  Need is need.  If you are a normal human being you will experience a great deal of emotion when you come face to face with a hurt and broken human being, an abused child, a sick animal, or a forest that has been destroyed.  It is just not pleasant to be around need. So when you take all the LIFE and emotions out of the stories you tell, the reader cannot fully experience the meaning you want to convey.

Why do we try to turn need into something it isn’t?  I think fundraisers who dress need up are afraid of their own emotions – they are afraid of the pain they experience when they encounter need.  So they first dress it up and package it for themselves in a tidy little emotionless package, which avoids the pain, and then they pass it on to their donors.

All of this dressing up and packaging to contain the need and pain is a useless activity.  We should be doing the opposite. Rather than protecting our donors from all the reality of the need we should be using every media, picture, choice of words and stories to literally take the donor right into the action – right to the scene.  This, in my opinion, is effective communication that has integrity.

Remember, the reason a donor gives YOU the money is so you can DO what they want to do but can’t.  So they give you the money to do it on their behalf.  That is the essence of fundraising – that’s how it works.  I think it’s your obligation to tell things like they are.

Here are some principles I use to make sure I keep on track in conveying the real need to the donor:

  1. First I make sure I have a good fix on what the need is. Oftentimes, you can go to a project site and get distracted by either all the technical jargon the program person is dispensing or you can get sucked into the process of addressing the need.  Anytime I am visiting a program site or thinking about the need I ask myself the question, “What is the REAL need here?”
  2. Then I ask myself the following question:  “What is the consequence of this need NOT being met?”  I might even ask a person with the need what he or she thinks the consequence is.  If this need is not met, what is going to happen?  I don’t think we spend enough time on finding the answer to this question. Sometimes we just don’t want to hear the answer.  But I suggest you dig into this one thoroughly.
  3. Transport yourself mentally and emotionally into the need.  Yes, that’s correct –  INTO the need.  Get into it and experience it.  What does it feel like to be homeless or hungry?  What does it feel like to be abused?  What does it feel like to be raped or have your son or daughter kidnapped and you may never see them again?  What does it feel like to have AIDS?  What will you emotionally experience when you have to eat raw garbage to survive or suffer a horrible injustice that you cannot control?  Get into it.  Feel it.  Grieve.  Let your heart be broken.
  4. Once you have done the three things above, then tell your story.  Now you are ready to pass it on – to transport your donor right into the action.  Now do the telling with great emotion and feeling.  Don’t edit.  Don’t be afraid to relive what you are telling and cry. It won’t kill you, believe me.  These are serious and emotional things!

Much of our world and its people and places are broken.  That’s the reality.  And it hurts.  It really hurts.  As you are being a vessel for good, don’t be afraid to let your donor experience the journey as well.



About Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry

Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry have over 55 years of experience fundraising for non-profits. Richard Perry was co-owner of Domain Group until 2005. Jeff Schreifels was a Senior Strategist for Domain Group for 12 years. They came together a few years ago to start Veritus Group, a full-service major gift fundraising agency. Veritus Group has a unique, data-driven approach unlike any agency focused on major gifts. Jeff and Richard are passionate about their work, passionate about life and hopes this blog will provide you with insights and tangible benefits for you and your work. Thank you for reading!
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3 Responses to How To Transport Your Donor Into The World’s Suffering

  1. I get what you are saying, but instead of telling you need to show us what you are saying looks like and how your messaging behaves in direct mail, social media, or whatever. How do you insert the donor into the agony of the beneficiary living 24/7 off and in the town garbage dump? If you are limited to text and image and face-to-face, you risk being accused of deploying poverty porn to elicit donations. That is the reason why so many of the international charities now show opportunity (smiling face) vs. reality (need). They aren’t hiding; they’re simply showing good manners and protecting the dignity of the poor. One could ask how you even came to have the time and money (a luxury) to experience the reality that broke your heart. Personally, as someone who spent many years working for international relief organizations, what I find at least morally ambiguous (but most of the time simply obnoxious) are the elites among us using the experience of witnessing the agonies of others to write the books and to command $50k keynote addresses. Several one-hit-wonder charity celebs (made famous by a generous NYT op-ed or two) come to mind — the ones who consistently headline the big conferences. Life is complicated.

    • Richard Perry says:

      Whew! Good comments, James! Thank you. Let’s see, where to start….

      I can feel your anger at the “poverty porn” mongers who use the poor and their suffering to promote their agenda. I agree with you and would call that behavior morally wrong AND obnoxious. But I won’t let their behavior govern me. Neither should you. There will always be those among us who use others for their self interest.

      While this topic is very complex and I don’t have the space to treat it fully here, the reality is that presenting opportunity (smiling faces) does not convey need like showing reality does. It just doesn’t. We are wired, as humans, to respond to need. It’s logical and it’s right. Like you, I worked for many years in the international relief and development sector. So, I know about this topic. I also was born and raised in South America among the poor. So, I have experienced it as well.

      In all the years of dealing with the subject of showing need, I have discerned that I can “transport the donor into the suffering” and protect the dignity of the person as well. It is simply about asking the person if I can tell their story and show others the details of their situation.

      The “poverty porn” folks do not do that. They just fly in, grab the pics, videos and stories and fly out. The friends of poor sit among them, relate to them, explain and ask permission. Big difference. If you just fly in and grab the stories without concern for the people you are bad mannered. If you explain and ask permission you show honor and respect. So, just showing/telling the need is not, in my opinion, the issue here. It is HOW you go about doing it and, more deeply, the state of your heart (motivations).

      I would also say that there are a lot of politically correct people who have never been with the poor and suffering – really been with them – who enjoy standing behind their bully pulpit to blather on about how to dress up need. I find these people as obnoxious as the poverty porn folks. They are arrogant, exclusive and ignorant. And they are afraid of their own feelings and emotions. And many of them do the conference circuit and writing thing to promote this philosophy. Crazy.

      Sadly, some of these people sit in good organizations who are dedicated to helping the poor. (Don’t know how they got there!) When you really look into who these people are, they really do not care for the poor – it is really about them and their need to self express through technical jargon and “poor talk” than it is about really caring. I have sat with some social service and relief and development program designers who have no heart for the poor at all. It is disgusting. I would also say that I have sat with a lot of very wealthy and successful people who really care about the poor. So, this is all not as much about one’s position or place in life as it is about the state of one’s heart and core motivations.

      Oh, I got to Manila and the garbage dump because of my work with the organization that employed me at the time. It was a luxury and a privilege – something I am thankful for even today.

      And, I agree with you, life IS complicated. But the more we talk and reason together the more light can be shed on our path.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful and powerful response. That’s why I am here. I trust your judgment and authenticity. Keep going. How our profession needs your work and influence. Truly. Jim

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