4 min Read
November 5, 2020

Appealing to donor values while avoiding donor-centrism

Think back to the last time that you got an email from a nonprofit and decided to take the action they asked you too—donate, sign a petition, etc. There are surely examples in which you did so because a friend asked you to or because you know and trust people on staff, but it’s likely there’s also a time you took action because the organization’s communications emphasized something you believe in. 

Values-based messaging leads with the beliefs or attitudes that drive your organization. It taps into a simple belief (for example, the idea that everyone should have access to opportunity), to connect with audiences and invite them to learn more about how your work supports that shared value. Often this approach to messaging is used to start telling the story of your organization or to articulate the importance of a campaign or project. 

A strong example of this is the Freedom to Marry campaign, which eventually led to the Supreme Court decision that ended marriage discrimination.  In reflecting upon their wins, the campaign cites values-based messaging as part of it, specifically that people “responded to the invocation of shared values: some responded to the Golden Rule, others to the value of freedom.” 

One of the reasons values-based messaging is so powerful is that it’s rooted in the psychology of behavior change. As the Opportunity Agenda says, “leading with values activates emotions and opens an audience’s hearts and ears to the message.” When we consume content that speaks to our personal motivations or core beliefs, we’re more likely to engage. 

I often see—and in many cases recommend—the use of values-based messaging in donor communications. It paints a picture of the world that donors are hoping to create, appeals to their emotions, and ultimately inspires giving. That said, with the power of values-based messaging to donors comes responsibility, specifically the responsibility to not be overly donor-centric. 

Donor-centrism is a fundraising strategy that places donors at the center of fundraising communications and messaging. It entails thanking donors, making them the hero of the story, personalizing communications, and more. But putting the donor at the center of your communications can also be problematic.  

Vu Lee of Nonprofit AF describes the power and danger of donor centrism: “…the pervasiveness of this model in our sector may be perpetuating the very inequity that we are seeking to address as a sector. I believe in many of the tenets of donor-centrism—don’t treat donors like ATMs, appreciate every gift of any amount, don’t take donors for granted, build relationships, be transparent, etc. I just don’t believe that donors should be in the center of nonprofit work, or even the center of fundraising work.”

In fundraising, it’s important to strike the right balance. There are communications practices that drive action, but there are also practices that perpetuate harmful narratives, glorify wealth, and more. If you’re thinking about tapping into donor values to inspire giving this year-end season or in more general communications, consider the following. 

Lead with values that are authentic to your community. 

Often in donor communications, we center specific issues and ideas that the donor cares about to make a case so they will support us. When it comes to writing values-based messaging, strive for ideals that are authentic to your organization instead of values that you think your donors have. Your organization’s values should lift up the beliefs of your community, not just the beliefs of your donors. 

For a helpful example of how to understand and codify your community’s values, listen to or read the transcript for this podcast with Cecilia Clarke, President and CEO of the Brooklyn Community Foundation on articulating your community’s values

Highlight the “we,” not just the “you”. 

Beyond tapping into shared ideals, values-based messaging often highlights the donor’s role in bringing those values to life. Look for ways to reduce “you” language and increase “we” language. Your donors play a big role in helping realize your vision and bring shared values to life, but so do your staff, partner organizations, and others. By highlighting the “we,” it reduces language that glorifies the donor for work done by many. 

Use values to educate.

Consider how you can use your organization’s values to educate donors about issues they may not consider or engage with. For example, if you’re tapping into a shared value of opportunity, consider how you can tie in systemic racism and how people of color may have limited opportunity as it connects to your mission. If you’re not frequently talking about racial justice in your communications, values-based messaging is an opportunity to open up that conversation and share how it aligns with the donor’s values. 

Looking at how you tap into donor values without being overly donor-centric is just way to make communications more equitable. Explore Community Centric Fundraising: a fundraising model grounded in equity and social justice. My colleague, Farra Trompeter also examined how to engage major donors during your year-end campaign and highlights some community-centric tactics.