Poor Name, Great Lesson

toxic

My mentors always warned me to avoid a particular type of story.

Here’s why…

They noticed that some appeals for children’s charities would raise a lot more money than other appeals. 

Yet all of the appeals had a story about a child in need – and the appeals all featured the same offer.  What was the difference?

They dug into the appeals and noticed one big difference:

  • In the appeals that raised the most, the stories were focused on the situation the child was in today.  They barely mentioned the parents of the child, or what caused the child to be in the situation they were in. 
  • In the appeals that raised less, the stories spent significant time and energy talking about the parents and their role in the child’s situation.  The stories spent less time talking about the situation the child was in today. 

These Fundraisers came up with a theory to explain why this happens:

  • When the focus of the story is on the child and their current situation of need, readers would therefore focus on the child and want to help the child.  This would cause the appeal to raise a lot of money.
  • When too much of the story is focused on the parent and/or the parent’s actions, some readers would focus on the parent.  This means that fewer readers would focus on the child, and fewer people would give.  So these appeals raised less money.

To describe stories where the parent or the actions of the parent overshadowed the situation the child was in, my mentors used the term “toxic mom.” 

I’ve taken the liberty to rename this the “toxic parent” problem.  This was taught to me in a more chauvinistic time.  Pinning this problem only on mothers is ridiculous.

Example Time

I’m sure you’ve seen this yourself.

The well-meaning nonprofit tells a story like this…

  • “Patrick has been in and out of rehab several times.  Because when he drinks, he occasionally gets violent.  His two young daughters need a safe place to stay, and your gift today will help them.”

Opening that story by talking about Patrick is a great way to raise less money.  Why?  Because some readers will think the story is about Patrick.  And other readers will think Patrick caused these problems for himself, that he’s an addict, and addicts are weak-willed people who can’t keep their act together. 

I’m not saying any of those reactions are correct.  But they are all reactions that take the focus off helping the girls, which is the reason the letter exists and was sent to the reader.  And they all happened because of the way the story was told.

The story would have been more effective if it had been told like this…

  • “Katy and Emma are two young girls in a tough situation.  One of their parents is occasionally violent after drinking.  The girls are too young to be on their own.  They need a safe place to stay, and your gift today will help them.”

All of my experience indicates that the second approach to telling the story would result in more money raised.

Poor Name, But Great Lesson

I was warned to edit the stories so that the “toxic parent” never overshadowed the child in need.  That was a good lesson. 

But the Big Lesson is to keep your reader’s attention in the place that is most likely to cause them to give a gift.

And that place is the problem that your beneficiary is facing today.

The “toxic parent” is not necessarily “toxic” because he or she is evil.  The parent is “toxic” because any time spent in a letter/email/story on the person who caused the problem means time your reader is not focused on the person in need, the problem they are facing, and how the donor can help today.   

Watch out for anything in your fundraising that takes the reader’s focus off of what’s happening today and what the donor can do about it!

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