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:
- 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?”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.