Do you ever feel like your cause is too small to attract the support you need?

This week is Rare Disease Week and Sunday (Feb. 29) is World Rare Disease Day.  In the U.S., rare diseases are defined as those that affect less than 200,000 people. In the EU, a rare disease is defined as any that affects less than 2,000 people. More than 7,000 rare diseases have been identified to date, cumulatively affecting somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 million Americans.

Fundraising for an organization that affects a small number of people can be challenging.  Typically, the larger the impact of an organization, the easier it is to fundraise.

This issue or challenge—touching only a small number of lives—is an issue not just for rare diseases. It’s a problem of many new organizations as well.  Newer organizations tend to have very small service numbers. They simply haven’t been in existing long enough to have impacted many lives.

Other organizations serve causes that affect a large number of people but, because the cause is not widely discussed (like child sexual abuse), people think it’s a small number of people or they think they don’t know anyone affected.

So what works in rare fundraising? What works when your organization’s impact touches only a small number of lives?

One of the most critical steps for small causes is to put a face on the cause. Because so few people know someone who is affected, they need to be introduced to someone who is affected. The numbers and stats aren’t on your “side.” But the story of one person impacted can be very powerful.  In a very well-known study about philanthropic response, researchers tested people’s giving to a fictional cause serving hungry children in Africa. People were more willing to give and to give more generously when told the story of one child who was hungry than they were when told about millions of starving children. So the first thing any organization should do is tell the story of a specific person who was touched by the cause and touched by the organization. One person’s story.

In the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Dan and Chip Heath write that faces are “sticky.” They say that a story without a face (literally, a face, not a person or the idea of a person) is more memorable than the same tale without a face. They advocate attaching a facial image to a story to help people remember the story.

This is especially important in causes that address a small number of people. If a cancer organization tells me a story, I don’t really need to be able to visualize their organization’s spokesperson or marketing materials because I have faces in my memory of friends and family who were affected. But if someone tells me the story about juvenile myositis, I don’t have an image in my memory bank to attach to it so it’s important that an organization serving children with myositis provide an image for me.

Professional fundraisers talk about Linkage, Ability, and Interest (L.A.I.) when they discuss the prospects of a potential donor giving. Both the likelihood to give and the size of a gift are driven by a prospect’s L.A.I.  Your best donor prospects are those where your linkage, ability and interest are all high.

Ability—or financial capacity—might vary for a person over time as their health, life stage, and career prospects change. It might also vary over time depending on market conditions.  But at any given time, it is what it is.

Linkage (your connectedness and access to a person) and Interest (a person’s passion for your cause) are variables over which you, your organization, and your organization’s network have some impact. An individual can have all the money in the world (think Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Oprah), but if he or she has zero interest in your cause or you have no access to them to make your pitch, the likelihood that they will give is infinitesimal.

All of us—not just those who work on behalf of small populations of people—need to ask the people we are linked or connected to. Part of the magic of peer-to-peer fundraising is that it takes advantage of the linkages of every person who participates. It taps more than just the staff members’ or the board members’ linkages, it taps the linkages of all supporters of a cause. Peer-to-peer fundraising events (like walks where participants sign up to participate and then raise money from their network of friends, family, and co-workers) are great fundraising initiatives for small causes.

Many things have changed in fundraising over the last few decades, but this is one thing that remains pretty much the same: one of the primary reasons people give to cause is because they were asked by someone they care about. We give because we are “linked” to a cause via our friends, family, and colleagues.  Organizations that serve small numbers should follow their connections and pursue fundraising strategies—like peer-to-peer fundraising—that capitalize on those connections.

Photo by Yoel Kamara on Unsplash

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