“Isn’t it Better to Give and Receive?”

While reading a local newspaper, I came across an advertisement from a national nonprofit organization. The headline in the ad read:

Isn’t it Better to Give and Receive? — [Name of organization deleted] Life Income Plans”

I liked the mildly clever twist on a common phrase. So, I took a moment to read the text that followed:

My dad and I have that special father/daughter relationship you read about. So while I know he needs some extra cash to make life more comfortable, I don’t want to insult him by giving him checks all the time.

I’ve decided to give this dear, generous, wonderful man a gift annuity from [name of organization deleted]. It accomplishes everything I want in one simple gift. He will receive a partially tax-free stream of income for the rest of his life, and I won’t have to embarrass either of us, because [name of organization deleted] will send the checks directly to him. I will receive an income tax deduction on a portion of the gift in the year in which I make the gift.

I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve done the right thing for my Dad, and for [name of organization deleted].

What could be better? We give and we receive, it’s the perfect partnership.”

The ad included a sample gift annuity illustration for a $50,000 gift for an 80 year old annuitant. The ad also included a photograph of a middle-age woman. In addition, it included a generic development-office email address, development-office mailing address, and 800 telephone number.

While I want to focus on the story told in the ad, I do want to also mention that the ad would have been stronger if the organization had included the name of a specific contact person. Prospective donors are more likely to email, mail, or call a named individual rather than a faceless institution.

Ok, let’s look at the story.

The ad told a terrific, seemingly heartfelt story. However, I was immediately suspicious that the story was a fiction. The photo of the woman, presumably the “daughter” from the story, had that stock-photo look to it. No names, not even simply first names, were used in the story. The story also did not mention anything related to the organization’s mission making it seem like a product pitch.

So, I called the organization’s head of planned giving to learn more about the ad. She was kind enough to take the time to speak with me which I greatly appreciate.

The planned giving director explained that while the story in the ad was fictional, it was based on similar donor stories that are true.

I then asked, “If you have true donor stories that could have related the same information, why use a fictional story?” She responded that the organization wanted to respect the privacy of the donors.

While I recognize the desire to protect donor privacy, surely the organization could have found at least one donor willing to share her story. The donor’s privacy could have been protected by using first names or even changing the names while acknowledging that the story was a true one.

Using a true story would have been more compelling. It would have taken a carefully crafted sales pitch and turned it into a heartfelt testimonial.

Instead, the organization used a fictional story. Sadly, the story was not labeled as a composite donor story. This means that the organization is recruiting donors with a lie. That’s not exactly the best basis upon which to build a trusting relationship. Actors may sell soap and toilet paper, but that’s not what we’re doing in development.

When I was a little boy, my parents told me, “Honesty is the best policy.” Well, it still is.

If the organization was going to use a composite story, it should have been labeled as such. But, I do understand the organization’s concern about doing so. Such a label would reduce the credibility of the ad. And, that’s my point.

Using real stories is more compelling, more credible, and builds relationships of trust.

Here’s a terrific story about storytelling I heard from my friend Viken Mikaelian, CEO and Founder, PlannedGiving.com. I liked it so much that I included it in my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing:

Donor stories not only help your prospects identify with people, they also give you the chance to be warm and fuzzy. A good example of this is a photo Oberlin College had online of three donors, two older women and a man, wearing their cheerleading outfits holding a football. When you clicked through, you saw the same three, wearing the same clothes but, in the photo from 1949, they were cheerleading at a football game when they were young. Oberlin used web technology to connect two pictures that tell an engaging, compelling donor story.”

Oberlin could not do something that engaging with a fictional story. Real is better.

I do recognize that there are times when some development professionals will feel using a fictional or composite donor story is necessary. At such times, fictional or composite stories should be labeled as such. If you don’t, you’re simply deceiving your readers. And, that’s not exactly the ethical way to build a trusting relationship.

In the case I’ve mentioned, if the charity was insistent on using a composite story, it could simply have used a sub-headline such as: “Does this composite donor story describe you?” Or, at the end of the story: “If this composite donor story sounds at all familiar to you, contact Jane Doe for more information.” While such language wouldn’t make the ad more compelling, it would have made it more honest.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

8 Comments to ““Isn’t it Better to Give and Receive?””

  1. Michael,

    I have to agree that the organization should have either used a real person with their name, perhaps last name removed, to tell the story, or said this fictional story is based on real life experiences of existing donors and agree that having a name to contact would be better for potential donors.

    One thing that stood out to me which I see as a positive was the fact that they used a daughter getting the annuity for her father, and not a son for his mother. In this age where more women have joined the workforce and hold positions that pay well enough to invest like this, it is refreshing that they did not hold on to a sexist stereotype,

    Hope you and your wife have a great Thanksgiving!

    • Richard, thank you for commenting and for the holiday good wishes. The ad has many positive elements. As you observed, telling the story of a woman arranging the annuity for her father was a nice touch and smart.

      “Women make 84 percent of all philanthropic decisions,” according to Margaret May Damen, co-author of Women, Wealth and Giving and President and Founder of The Institute For Women and Wealth.

      7 percent of high-income women (those earning $150,000 or more a year) made charitable gifts using securities while only 3 percent of high-income men did so. Among high-income women, 16 percent have or use a donor-advised fund, charitable
      remainder trust, or private foundation while only 10 percent of high-income men do so, according to the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund. In other words, high-income women are more likely than high-income men to make use of innovative giving vehicles.

      So, as you can see, the charity was wise to tell the story from the perspective of a female donor.

      I wish you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Hi Michael, I agree with you that honesty is the best policy – especially in this case because gift annuities have literally had their day in court and are still so misunderstood. But I think the ad was an eye opener and even educational for so many that I forgive them. What bothers me much more is the generic response mechanism. A compelling “personal” story was used to draw prospects but the responders are subjected to “contact info@” or something similar. That usually means that the responder has to wait for someone to get back to them after giving up personal information -yuk! Talk about killing off high motivation. BTW, I think Viken’s example is a riot and such great marketing.

    • Lorri, thank you for commenting. I want to underscore something you wrote. When taking a personal approach to development, we need to remain personal throughout the entire process. That means giving folks someone specific to respond to.

  3. Hi Michael,

    I agree that true stories are better than composites, whenever possible. But in cases where your organization needs to use a “composite” story, be sure to disclose it. I like the sample phrases you’ve given.

    Years ago, I wrote a newsletter piece on elder abuse, and we weren’t able to use a true story. I created a story based on the trends councillors had uncovered. It worked really well as the hook to draw people into the article, which also contained educational content. At the end of the composite story, I wrote this paragraph:

    “Mary, Joanne, and Susan are fictional characters created to help you understand a problem most people would rather not think about — elder abuse. Unfortunately, elder abuse is a very real problem.”

    This simple paragraph disclosed that the story was a composite and transitioned nicely to the educational content of the article where our experts told about the increasing rates of elder abuse, what warning signs to watch for, and how to help if you see the warning signs.

    Story telling is so important in communications, and I think it’s entirely possible to use composite stories effectively and ethically when you need to. But, you’re absolutely right that it’s very important to be clear about what’s fact and what’s been created for illustrative purposes.

  4. Thank you, a good discussion.

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