mother hugs daughter who has leukemia - article about content marketing for nonprofits

Content Marketing for Nonprofits: How to Inspire Donors with Empathy

For-profit content marketing is different from content marketing for nonprofits in many ways. But one strategy is universal: to practice and inspire genuine empathy.

Look, everybody’s a little bit selfish.

Even selfless acts like donating are personally rewarding. That’s not a bad thing.

What is bad is when we pretend otherwise and don’t offer prospective donors what they want.

A winning strategy taps into their true, “selfish” motivations.

Is Content Marketing for Nonprofits Really That Different from For-Profits?

Once, as a planner for a homeless shelter’s fundraising walk, I met with the marketing director of a supporting organization to solicit employee participation.

I asked for her support in promoting a competition to drum up more donations. Why not? Supporting an important cause was motivation enough. To have a little fun was just a bonus.

But the savvy marketing pro she was, she challenged my thinking on that.

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

In other words, competitiveness, peer pressure, and even sympathy for people in need aren’t strong motivators to drive much supportive action.

What are the deeper motivators, then?

It’s All About Empathy (In and For Donors)

The difference between sympathy and empathy comes down to superficial knowledge vs. genuine understanding.

Inspiring pangs of sympathy (“Oh, those poor people”) or guilt (“I should do something”) in your donors isn’t enough to inspire a supportive relationship. 

Those feelings are fleeting.

Your ultimate goal is to inspire empathy in your donors through storytelling. And the best stories help donors put themselves into the shoes of people in need.

But to do this effectively, you first need to practice empathy for your donors. 

What do your donors want?

It certainly isn’t to feel guilty or sad. We can do better than that.

The Kind of Story Donors Need to Hear

One 2017 study found that though eliciting feelings of sadness in prospective donors can do the trick, there’s a better approach.

Researchers tested three versions of an ad soliciting support for a child diagnosed with a severe form of leukemia. Each had a different focus:

  1. A sad story (deficit).
  2. A positive story (strength).
  3. A story about strength in the face of adversity.

The results give us insight into which motivating desires in donors are deepest:

“Participants made more donations to the child when they felt both sadness and strength … than they did in the other two conditions. Therefore, the positive emotion of strength can be persuasive and effective in donation appeals when it is combined with the negative emotion of sadness.”

Doesn’t this make a lot of sense when you think about it?

We all want and need to be a part of communities of care, in which we’re sometimes the one in need and at other times the one who helps.

Donors want to feel like they’re part of a great story they can see themselves in. 

  • They don’t want to be part of a sad story, so it makes sense that giving will be short-term. It’s an effort to push the story away rather than engage with it.
  • They like to hear a story of strength, but it isn’t one they feel a part of. With too little emphasis on the need, it isn’t clear what role they have to play.
  • They want to be a part of stories about overcoming adversity with a little help from people who truly understand what they’re going through. 

Go back and re-read every bullet above. But this time, substitute the word “they” with “I.”

Now you’re empathizing with your donors.

These motivators are universal. We all want and need to be a part of communities of care, in which we’re sometimes the one in need and at other times the one who helps.

That’s the “selfish” agenda we all share: to feel good about the stories we’re a part of.

Invite your donors to experience that, and they’ll have a hard time turning you down.

Better Stories = Effective Content Marketing for Nonprofits

If you’re managing a nonprofit marketing project, success hinges on your content strategy.

  • What stories do you need to tell?
  • Do they resonate with prospective donors?
  • How do you successfully make the ask to support you?

You have good instincts and answers to these questions.

What you don’t have is extra time. Or the ability to clone yourself so the other you can put a strategy together.

I think you see where I’m going with this. Let’s talk!