Writing for Nonprofits: Inspiring Empathy v. Sympathy

As a volunteer on the planning committee for the Muncie Mission’s annual fundraising walk, I met with a marketing director last week to discuss ways to engage her employees in team competition. The idea was to raise more dollars by offering a prize and recognition to the top-raising team within their category, be it banking, law, etc.

I didn’t get the answer I was hoping for. I got a big dose of truth instead.

After discussing the parameters we would have to follow to appropriately engage employees of the organization, there was a moment of silence. I could tell she was searching for the right words for what she wanted to say next.

“People don’t want to feel like all you want from them is their money,” she said. “They want to feel like they’re a part of something.”

The idea of drumming up team competition, she explained, seemed to fall short of what we were trying to do. If the focus is on money we’re missing the point. It’s what the money is for that people need to really understand. They need to be able to connect to the cause to be genuinely motivated to support it.

After reflecting on our conversation, I happen to think she’s right. A fundraiser is meaningless if it wins money but not hearts. If it’s just an event that isn’t part of a larger goal to engage more souls in the cause, it’s little more than a Band-Aid.

Of course, nonprofits like the Mission already use events as opportunities to communicate the needs of the people they serve. The question isn’t whether they do it, but how. One way to phrase this question is: do they attempt to elicit sympathy or empathy?

Trying to generate sympathy is the easier road. It involves communicating that as an organization you’ll suffer without support. It requires nothing more than telling potential donors what they already understand, that you have a mission and you can’t fulfill it without their generosity.

You’re saying, Feel sorry for us and for the people we serve. Give out of guilt.

Seeking empathy requires going deeper. It is the work of humanizing the people you serve, telling their stories with details that your audience will recognize as points of commonality. It does not require embellishment or manipulation, only an accurate accounting of the truth.

Now you’re saying, Understand that the people we serve are in many ways just like you. Give to help people just as you would help yourself.

Inspiring empathy is difficult because for people to feel it they first need to overcome their assumptions and prejudices. You have to surprise your audience. You have to put them in your clients’ shoes, and you can do it if you’re willing to invest the time and effort required to tell their stories well.

If you’re not connecting supporters with the people benefitting from that support, your appeals really will only feel like they’re about money. Never put yourself in a position to be on the defensive about why you exist. The work you do is compelling, but it should never be about you, nor should it be about the people you serve or the people who fund you.

It’s about all of us, working together in partnership to move forward as one community. That’s the truth it’s your task to reveal. It was never about connecting one group with money with another in need. Rather, it’s about recognizing that we’re already connected. We’re already a community.

It’s not somebody else’s story. It belongs to all of us.