Nonprofit lessons on storytelling and the science of generosity


International aid organization Food for the Poor has its direct mail fundraising campaigns down to a science. With programming comprising 96.4 percent of the organization’s total expenses — a ratio even higher than the Red Cross’ 91 percent gold standard — Food for the Poor is clearly making the most of its direct mail-driven donor-engagement strategies, despite the supposed high cost of print marketing.

Like many nonprofits, the values of Food for the Poor’s donor base make it essential for the organization to operate with low overhead. While fundraising comprises only 2.9 percent of Food for the Poor’s expenses, direct mail marketing — considered to be one of the most expensive forms of outreach — is responsible for over 50 percent of annual donations, according to Executive Director Angel Aloma.

Presentation on marketing to donors

Aloma will be in town next week to present steps for successful nonprofit marketing, especially building donor relationships and giving.

Aloma will deliver the presentation “A Journey of Cultivation from Base to Peak” at the American Marketing Association of West Michigan’s monthly luncheon on Feb. 17, at the Calvin College Prince Conference Center, from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

People can register online.

Understanding donor base

So how has Food for the Poor been so successful with a strategy some marketers have all but written off? As Aloma explained, the organization’s direct mail marketing is finely tuned to its donor audiences based on years of careful research — and careful storytelling.

“Much of our donor base is made up of the silent generation — those now in their 70s and 80s,” Aloma said. “But a growing number comes from baby boomers and younger generations, which behave very differently. Boomers and younger have seen a lot of corporate misbehavior and tend to be cynical, so we know that it’s very important to be transparent. It’s why we make all the details of our expenses and our fundraising strategies available right on our website.”

Understanding donor motivations is also key, Aloma explained. Wanting to “help the poor” was a popular response to donor surveys, but as the organization dug deeper into its donors’ motivations for giving, it uncovered important takeaways that shifted their messaging.

“We did a deep-rooted study of our sixty best donors, and we found that beyond the superficial, the number-one reason they give to us is because they want to feel like honest, decent, good human beings in a world filled with so much negativity,” Aloma said. “This was followed by wanting to emulate Jesus, as he fed and healed multitudes, which is basically our work. They want to feel that they are living out the Gospel, that they are brought closer to their ideal moral identity. So that’s the message we focus on: reinforcing that by giving, our donors are doing good work.”

Key messaging

Simple repositioning of language helped their messaging tune in on their donors’ quests for achieving their moral identity. For example, rather than thanking donors “for helping us build a home for” a family, messaging places the donors in the active role, thanking them “for building a home” for a certain family. As another example, research found donors want to feel that they are caring and loving, so thanking them for their “loving, caring gift of $X” also increased repeat donations.

Tell a story

More significantly, research revealed individual storytelling as the organization’s most powerful tool.

“The bottom line is that when we use an emotional hook — the story of one child or one family — we get at least double the donations as when we simply use facts,” Aloma said. “Statistics about populations tend to give people a brain freeze, but the story of one child who can only eat every other day or the girl who must walk ten miles each day to gather water, these stories of the individual resonate with people and prompt them to take action.”

The organization’s creative is story driven, which includes often graphic photographic and written depictions of poverty and human suffering. Food for the Poor is sometimes criticized for its use of graphic imagery, as potentially exploitative, but Aloma emphasizes that telling the real story of the organization’s work is critical to keeping its messaging honest.

“Our own writers and photographers go out into the field to see the real work our organization does, and they come back with stories that are real and raw and emotional,” Aloma said. “Pictures really do tell a thousand words, and we know this works very well, because we send out twenty-seven pieces of direct mail each year. And it’s working.”

“Wired” to give

As a lifelong missionary and someone who sees extreme need and poverty on an almost weekly basis, Aloma sees the larger implications of Food for the Poor’s donor research.

“Giving is a gift to the giver, because the person who’s giving gets more than those who are receiving,” Aloma said. “Studies have shown that the brain produces chemicals, which create feelings of well-being when you act generously.

“We are hard wired to be generous, if we want to be happy,” he said, pointing out this applies to consumer behavior and charitable giving.

Corporate “billions”

Younger generations’ kepticism towards corporate greed combines with the innate human desire to act generously, creating powerful incentive for corporations to develop thoughtful giving strategies. Aloma emphasized that for-profit corporations in today’s market have an obligation to take action against human suffering and gross economic inequality, and he cited several that already have. Hormel, Kellogg, Office Depot and others have partnered with Food for the Poor on nutritional, school enrollment and other programs, with measurable success.

“We should always think, when we are enjoying excess, that there are those in life who have nothing,” Aloma said. “If you look at any area in the world with major conflict, there is also the highest majority of people who are very poor. The only way for us to have peace is to fulfill these basic needs for food, water, infrastructure, so these economies can flourish. Regular donors can give $10 or $20, but the corporate world grossing billions can do so much more. Imagine the impact of building entire villages and city sewage systems. This should be something all corporations are thinking about, big or small.”

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