The five Rs of supporter-focused fundraising communications – any questions?

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

I recently had the chance to join a couple of The Resource Alliance’s IFC Pop-up conferences in South Africa to discuss putting your supporter at the heart of your fundraising communications. (By Skype, I hasten to add, joining for a live Q&A after the video of my IFC session). These pop-ups are an initiative of The Resource Alliance to bring learning from the IFC to more charities around the world.

There were some great questions, worth sharing, as they covered points that a lot of charities still grapple with. And it gives me the opportunity to share a “Five Rs” checklist for keeping communications supporter focused. Read on.

Q. Our challenge is we have zero public profile. How do you get the balance right between building your awareness, and fundraising?

 A. The first point in response is that profile alone doesn’t raise money, and isn’t necessary if you have ways and means of reaching your audience. Face-to-face street fundraising is equally effective for smaller unknown charities as for household names because it lends itself to conversations. That’s not to say a bit of name recognition doesn’t help. Of course, it does, in terms of trust and so on. Many charities with big brand profiles built that profile first through their fundraising. All charities began at the beginning raising funds without anyone knowing about them. How? Because it’s not the organisation that matters to people in the end; it’s the cause.

So, the second and important point here is to remember that “the story is not about you, get out of the way”. Focus on the problem you exist to address, the solution you offer, and the opportunity you’re offering people to make it a reality.

Q. In our work, often there isn’t much good news. It’s depressing stuff. How do we balance that with the positive?

 A. Every mission has this dichotomy because we are all seeing something wrong in the world that we want to put right. People are moved by different emotions, and different emotions can evoke different actions. You must be clear what the purpose of your communication is and think through the range of emotions that are likely to trigger people. Anger? Guilt? You don’t want to trigger despair that nothing can be done! Compassion? Hope?

We must communicate the problem and the solution, the bad with the good. The question is how you do it, and when you do it. In fundraising terms, it’s not so much about the problem and the solution, but more the opportunity presented to the audience to be the bridge between the two. They need to see the problem and be moved by that, but also glimpse the solution and be inspired by that and want to make it happen. Which is more powerful will depend on circumstances and the person.

Feedback communications, though, must be about progress and impact. The feelings you want supporters to experience are reassuring and positive ones: relief, optimism, satisfaction, pride, commitment.

Q. How can you have one message when you’ve got different audiences?

A. The issue here is making sure you have an overarching and compelling message – or single-minded story – that holds the whole organisation together and gives you focus. So the answer is to distinguish between your one over-arching story, and then how you tell it. Of course, you’ll need to tell that story slightly differently to different audiences, and if you’re engaging them to do different things. Organisations often talk about the range of their service activities, but if these seem completely different with nothing holding them together, you will come over as dissonant and disorganised, unfocused and unclear.

A challenge for many charities comes where supporters and service users are in the same community and likely to see both types of communications. Of course, they’ll be focused on one or the other. So find the compelling story of the mission and cause that both can identify with.

Q. We work with vulnerable children. We have a challenge telling personal stories to ensure child protection, and use fictional stories. Any thoughts on that?

A. The critical issue is protection of the child, and this issue applies to individuals served by many other causes too, in terms of respecting their privacy and dignity. But a question for you is about authenticity when it comes to your audience. How credible can you be when you make stuff up? People won’t engage so readily if they don’t believe the story.

I would say always use a real story, wherever possible, and then make it safe for the individual if you need to. Change the names, the location and other facts to protect their identity. Use stock or model photos, or even better, take photography carefully to hide faces. Make sure you have informed consent to use their story.

What is important, for authenticity and credibility, is to then be transparent. Explain what you’ve done and why. It can even add to the power of the story that you have had to do that. One organisation I know builds trust with those whose stories it tells by asking them to choose the name they’d like to be called in communications.

A final thought – are you telling fictional stories because your organisation is bad at finding and sharing good real ones? Sort that out instead!

The five Rs of supporter-focused fundraising communications

These Q&As illustrate this simple Five Rs checklist to consider whether communications are speaking to your audience.

  1. Reach. Perhaps obvious, but are you using the right or preferred channel to reach your specific audience? If you can’t reach them properly, so that they don’t see it, what you want to share with them counts for nothing.
  2. Relevance. Remember it’s not about you. Are you making sure that what you’re sharing is of interest, and relevant to your audience’s world? Frame what you want to say in terms and language that will connect with people.
  3. Resonance. This is the emotion bit, the feeling that moves people. Are you telling story with emotional power? Is it compelling, urgent? Do you feel it yourself when you tell it? Because like yawning, emotion is catching.
  4. Real. Is what you’re presenting authentic as a need and believable as a solution? Is what you’re asking people to do meaningful? People want to know they’re making a real difference.
  5. Reward. Are you making sure your supporters feel good about what they’re doing, helping them feel part of something big? Share the difference they are making possible, the progress.

 Got any more tips on keeping your communications supporter-focused? Please share!



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Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


Frances Roen · April 10, 2017 at 22:29

I believe a major component of keeping your communications supporter-focused is to ask your supporters what they want to hear or know. If you continually hear that they would like to learn more about specific programs or outcomes, share that information. If your supporters tell you they want less or more of something else, make sure you do so. The conversations will not only help you better your communications, but are another way to build meaningful relationships with your donors.

    Matthew Sherrington · April 10, 2017 at 23:44

    Thanks Frances. Yes. Absolutely.

Fundraising Friday | April 14, 2017 | Pamela Grow · April 14, 2017 at 11:20

[…] Five Supporter Focused Fundraising Communications Questions. This week’s must read from Fundraising 101. […]

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