Desperation is not a fundraising strategy

Imagine a creditor is going to take your car away from you unless you come up with $1,000 by tomorrow. You don’t have the means to pay what’s owed. How do you get the money? Do you ask someone for help? What do you say to them?

You would experience a considerable sense of urgency in this situation, so you’d probably go quickly to the people closest to you and ask for help. You’d tell them you need your car, that it’s important to you. You depend on it, your job depends on it, and your life would be much harder without it. The focus of your message would be on your problem and how much you need their help. You’re in a tough place, so you’re hoping they’ll be understanding and help you out.

When we find ourselves in situations where the things we need depend on help from others, we tend to let worry take over and act out of desperation – especially if what’s needed is in short supply. So, while you’d maybe run to a friend for a loan to keep your car, what would you do if the stakes were even higher? What if you were dying of thirst and needed water, or were starving and needed food?

Nonprofit organizations talk a lot about their own needs in fundraising appeals – and that might stem from worry. The revenue they need in order to provide critical services to others comes from unpredictable sources outside their organizations. Success or failure has very little to do with how well nonprofits perform their missions, and funding can – and often does – disappear for reasons completely beyond their control. And because those who rely on a nonprofit’s services are often in life-or-death situations, the urgency for resources becomes even more heightened.

So, it makes sense that a lot of nonprofit messaging focuses on the importance of their own organization – what they’re doing, how vital their mission is, and how much they need people to support their efforts. It makes sense because they’re worried if they don’t talk about their work, people will stop supporting them and they’ll be forced to shut down.

“Communication that is saturated with desperation doesn’t motivate potential donors to give generously.”

People donate to causes that reflect on who they are, who they want to be or how they want to be perceived by others. When I make a charitable donation, I’m saying, “This is the kind of person I am – I care about this cause.”

Notice how the organization isn’t even a part of that internal conversation? For most donors, a nonprofit is simply the conduit that connects donors with the cause they care deeply about. If this is how individuals approach charitable giving (and research convincingly tells us that it is), then a better strategy would be to connect that potential donor to the cause your nonprofit represents – not to your organization.

Instead of telling a potential donor about your nonprofit’s needs, work on connecting them with your nonprofit’s cause. Show donors the results of your work and help them make an emotional connection with those who are benefitting from your programs and services instead of hitting them over the head with your organization’s funding needs.

Will this shift in communications strategy be easy? Well, probably not. This can be one of the most difficult, counter-intuitive changes a nonprofit can consider – but the results will speak for themselves.

Bottom line: Acting out of worry and desperation won’t motivate donors to give to your cause. If you really want to activate supporters, think about what motivated you to get involved in your cause and what you’re really passionate about, then figure out how to connect donors with the source of that passion.

Thinking about your next messaging or fundraising campaign? Let Sharp 11 help you craft messaging and design that resonates with donors and shows your organization’s purpose.

Laura Bessinger-Morse is president of Sharp 11, Inc.

This blog was written with Jeremy Morse, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County.

Studio Sessions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Sharp 11’s strengths include a varied background and level of experience. . . Laura brings a real world and simplified approach to nonprofit objectives. . . She is relatable, understands our issues and how to approach them. . . She knows her stuff!

Nonprofit Executives

Art of the Appeal Workshop Participants


Thank you for a fantastic presentation.  I can’t tell you how many “aha” moments there were.  I’m sharing with the team to implement!

Athary Koning

Special Events & Fund Development


I attended your workshop yesterday and I have to say it was so informative. I learned more in those two hours than an entire semester of grant writing in college. It reignited my excitement for writing grants and I just wanted to say thank you. I will be keeping an eye out for any future workshops you may have! Many thanks,

Alyssa Thompson

Project Assistant