The Secret of Charitable Fundraising: Tapping the Irresistible Urge to Help

by Dean Rieck

The little girl screams for help.

All around her, the fire grows. She pushes open her bedroom window overlooking the street, releasing clouds of thick, black smoke that are quickly choking away her young life.

She screams again, coughing, tears running down her face.

Outside, a man sees the smoke. Curious, he slows his car to get a look. Then he sees the girl in the second story window.

He slams his breaks and jumps out of the car.

Again the scream.

The man runs toward the house and tries the front door. Locked. He picks up a flower pot and smashes a first story window.

He pulls off his shirt, wraps it around his hand, and clears the remaining glass from the opening. Then, pulling himself through, he disappears into the smoke.

Moments later, the front door bursts open. Staggering, the man runs out of the house onto the front lawn and collapses.

When the fire department arrives, they find the man barely conscious but still holding the crying girl grasped tightly in his arms.

They think the man is the girl's father, but later discover that he is a stranger — just someone on his way home from work who decided to drive down a different street that day. Yet he risked his life to save a little girl he never met before.

* * *

A great story.

But not unusual. It's the kind of event you might see reported any day of the week. From my city newspaper:

Byron McFarland pulls Charles Summers, 62, from his van, which was submerged in about 7 feet of water ...

Eight-year-old Marcellus Henry saves the life of his teacher Mary Kulmaca during a severe asthma attack ...

Moved by the cries of a child, David Paul went inside a burning building to rescue 1-year-old Melody Pierce ...

Postal carrier Chris Imualle performs chest compressions to save the life of Ron Trouter, 70, after Trouter suffers a heart attack ...

For those of us who must raise funds on a regular basis, there is a lesson here if we look deep enough. Because the urge that drives these people to perform such acts of heroism is the same urge that drives prospects to respond to an appeal to save a child from starvation. Or help a woman dying of breast cancer. Or buy a turkey dinner for a homeless man at Thanksgiving.

It's the Urge to Help.

This is no ordinary urge. It's not "caring" or "kindness" or "love" or any of the ideas we try to express with such ambiguous words. Nor is it "altruism," which suggests a conscious act of selflessness.

It's an ancient, irresistible force that is literally instinctive, deep within us all.

An Experiment to Experience the Urge to Help

Would you like to harness this urge? Of course. But first, you must understand it. You must experience it in its pure form. So, let's try a quick experiment. (Don't cheat and just read this. Play along.)

* * *

Imagine you're in a house with someone you care about deeply. You're in one room and your loved one is in another. You can hear the other person start to walk down a set of steps, then fall. You can hear the body thumping down step after step, hitting hard at the bottom.

The person calls out your name, weakly begging for help. Then silence. You race to the door of the room, but it's locked. You tug at the door knob. Beat with your fists. But you can't get to your loved one, lying hurt, perhaps dying.

Now, close your eyes and hold that thought for a few moments. What do you feel?

* * *

If you're like most people, you've just experienced a very unpleasant but potent mix of emotions. And underneath, an urge you can't identify, but which you also cannot resist. It's an urge driving you to help.

Powerful, isn't it?

The Evolution of the Urge to Help

Where did this urge come from? Many thousands of years ago, when the world was sparsely populated, our ancestors lived in small tribal groups, usually no larger than 150. Everyone in any given group knew everyone else in the group. And most were related, since there was little contact with other tribes.

Life at this time was hard, every day a struggle for survival. It was remarkable just to reach the age of 30. Being in a group meant safety and a better chance for successful hunting and food gathering.

Everyone in a group was important, so when someone broke a leg, fell sick, or got mauled by a wild animal, others in the group tried to help. The survival of the whole group depended on the well-being of each of its members. Helping was a practical response to assure survival in those difficult times.

Generation after generation, this tendency to help our "family" became entrenched deep in our psyche. It became instinct.

Today our social situation is different. We live among not hundreds, but thousands and millions of others. We can't possibly know everyone. And we're related to just a small percentage.

However, our instincts haven't caught up with our new circumstances. The Urge to Help — intended for our family and tribe mates — now spreads naturally to our fellow human beings in moments of need, even those we don't know.

Triggering the Urge to Help in Your Appeal

Okay. So what's wrong with the traditional fundraising formulas? Nothing. But without understanding how this urge really works, your tactics can too easily degenerate into empty emotional pleas.

The Urge to Help is a specific response to a specific set of circumstances. To trigger this urge fully, doesn't it make sense to try to simulate the original conditions for which it evolved?

Think about our experiment earlier. What were the conditions? Think about how you knew and cared about the person. About the reality of the situation. About how you knew you needed to help immediately. Think it through.

Now, let's ever-so-slightly recast some of the rules for making an appeal, but in terms of what we now know about the Urge to Help:

Of course, triggering isn't everything. In terms of our experiment, once you've triggered the Urge to Help, you must enable your prospect to fulfill the urge by "opening the door."

That means you must observe sound direct marketing principles to ease response and eliminate doubts, such as asking for one, clear response; keeping the physical form of your appeal simple and believable; adding to your credibility by sharing testimonials; and so on.

And remember that I'm talking here primarily about charitable fundraising. Raising funds for other purposes, such as political action, for example, is a little different. If the cause has clear, tangible benefits for your prospect, you should be appealing more to self-interest.

Finally, you must always consider the specific appeal and make necessary adjustments to your message. For example, if you're mailing to donors on a regular basis, you can't present one calamity after another or you'll lose credibility.

Play that thought experiment a few more times. Make up your own scenarios if you like. Once you know the feel of this urge and understand its original purpose, you know what you're aiming for.

The Urge to Help is in everyone. It's just waiting for you to trigger it in your next appeal.

Copyright © 1997 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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