Your Donor Won’t Eat Your Meal Without Your Secret Sauce

Philanthropy, Not Fundraising

What's your secret sauce?

What’s your secret sauce?

There are many other nonprofits out there doing what you do.

Or some reasonable facsimile of what you do. Many of them have similar missions.  But… there’s something that’s different. Don’t try to serve up what you do without your secret sauce.

Your secret is why you do what you do.

The vision and beliefs that underlie your mission is what distinguishes you. Your goal is to find people who believe what you believe.  Then, you make a match.  That’s what fundraising is, at heart. It’s simply matchmaking.

Take a look at this TED talk by Simon Sinek about Start with the Why. It’s about the fact that people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.  If you want to inspire folks to give to you, you’ve got to inspire them with your underlying purpose… belief… the reason you get out of bed in the morning… and why anyone else should care.  Check out this talk when you have 20 minutes and want some inspiration about how to think from your reader’s perspective – from the inside/out.

In a nutshell:

Simon Sinek makes a strong case that the reason everything boils down to the “why” is grounded in biology.  In fact, it’s grounded in the human brain, which is comprised by three parts and rules our actions. The outer layer, our neo-cortex, guides our rational thought. It corresponds with the “what” level and is responsible for rational, analytic thought… and language. Our middle layers comprise our nimbic brains, and correspond with the “why” level. They’re responsible for all of our feelings… all human behavior… all decision making.  And here’s the kicker: the nimbic brain has no capacity for language!

So when you serve up outside/in communications – talking primarily about what you do rather than why you do it (and why your reader may care about it) — folks may be able to understand all sorts of information and features. But it doesn’t drive behavior!

Let that sink in for a moment.

Facts, figures, written language about your history, your founding, the woeful state of the universe in which you operate, and all the hundreds of thousands of folks who are in this plight… what part of the brain are you reaching with all this information?  The rational neo-cortex. That part that doesn’t drive behavior. If this is how you’re trying to persuade folks to support you — can you see how fundamentally wrong this is?

It’s only when you use emotion-packed stories combined with compelling visuals (photos and videos) that connect to the “gut”… “heart”… “soul”… that folks will begin to sit up and pay attention.  Then, and only then, will folks use their neo-cortex to rationalize their gut feelings that come from their nimbic brains.

So… what’s your recipe for success?

Let’s go shopping for ingredients! Whether it’s your annual appeal letter… Your email fundraising pitch… Your website call for donation… Your donation landing page… Your “fund a need” at your special event… It’s all the same.

The basic ingredient — that without which your meal will fall completely flat —  is your passionate, purposeful reason for existence. Yes.  It’s your belief that if you succeed with your mission it will … cure a disease… save people’s lives… restore the delicate balance of the ecosystem…  something wonderful will happen. That is what will inspire others to follow you.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you should throw out all your compelling statistics about what you do. What you do is proof of why you believe. But you have to mix in this proof appropriately — at the right time, in the right place and with the right people.

Let’s start first with the right people.  There are two types of people in the world. Early adopters and late adopters.  The former are the ones most comfortable leading with their feelings. They make gut decisions with ease, and don’t require a lot of proof. You’ll get these folks with just pure belief.

For those who wait to see what others are doing first, you need to layer on some tangible evidence that what you’re doing is actually getting you to your why. [Note: most folks fall somewhere along a spectrum, and are a bit of both; occasionally they’ll tend one way, generally another].

Sometimes all folks need is social proof (i.e., the fact that someone else they respect is supporting your cause). This is why who signs your appeal letter, or who adds a personal hand-written note to the appeal, or who your email is sent from, is so important.

For others, you may need more tangible proof. This is where you layer in success stories. Testimonials. Photos that show your accomplishments.  And maybe a fact or two.

I say ‘maybe’ because facts must be offered in the right place at the right time. For example, proposals to foundations are the right place.  Funders tend to have formal requirements, and they’ll insist on seeing demonstrative proof.  Annual reports are the right place and the right time.  That’s what they’re for. They’re a means of reporting back to people that their decision to give to you was a good one.  They set up your next ask. Go right ahead and put your pie charts here. You’re not using your annual report to drive response (though, if you’re lucky, it may be a byproduct).

Can you put statistics in an appeal?

Yes, you can.  Should you? My gut feeling is no. Because most of the research I’ve seen points to the fact that people are not really divided between story and fact people. We’re all story people. We’re all driven by our nimbic brains. But it’s something you may want to test for your organization. Randomly divide your mailing list in two.  Send one a letter with pure emotion. Stories. Photos. Send the other list segment the same letter, but drop in a fact or a chart. See if there’s a difference in performance.

Think. What’s more inspiring? “I have a dream” or “I have a plan?”

Why do people follow dreamers? Not because of who the dreamers are or what they do. People follow dreamers because of what they believe. When what your organization believes (your values) aligns with what your constituents believe (their values) you’ve got a match.  All you have to do now is make that match through your powerful, compelling call to action.

How will you get your supporters to follow your nonprofit’s dream?

Still need a little help with your year-end appeal? It’s not too late! Grab my NEW Anatomy of a Fundraising Appeal Letter + Sample Template. It’s designed to assure you’re not missing any important elements that drive response. And I learned all this stuff the hard way!

Photo: Flickr, mookieluv

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About Claire

I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. Couldn’t agree more.
    Great post Claire as usual and great reminder this time of year.
    More sauce please!

  2. Thanks so much for the kind words. Much appreciated!


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