When is Fundraising a Laughing Matter?

In the nonprofit fundraising world, we tend to take ourselves very seriously. I suspect that’s because the missions of our organizations tend to be serious and, therefore, our fund development efforts have significant, sometimes life and death consequences.

Despite the seriousness of our work, there are nevertheless times when fundraising is definitely a laughing matter. For example, I discovered recently that fundraising professionals can learn some powerful lessons from a one-minute comedy sketch.

On their Comedy Central television program, the comedy duo of Key and Peele presented a vignette that should be seen by anyone working for a nonprofit organization. It’s funny. It’s brief. It’s full of important lessons.

Key and Peele - Save the Children - Season 4 - 2, click here to watch video.In the sketch, a man coming out of a building is stopped by another man asking for a donation to “save the children.” The solicitor tells the prospective donor that he can save a child for just one dollar. While handing the solicitor a five-dollar bill, the donor responds, “Who doesn’t want to help a child. I’ll tell you what, let’s save five children.”

[SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to summarize the rest of the sketch and give away the surprise. So, if you plan to watch the video, now would be a good time to do so; click here. Otherwise, continue reading for a detailed description of the scene.]

The solicitor then shouts out to his colleague who races an unmarked van over. The side door opens and five frightened children are permitted to exit. The van, full of additional children, drives away. The solicitor thanks the stunned donor and begins to walk away. As the ramifications of what he has just seen sink-in, the donor realizes he has another dollar and, therefore, he can save another child. The scene ends with him chasing down the solicitor to give him the other dollar.

This one-minute vignette contains many important lessons including the following six:

  1. Do not exploit those you serve. In the sketch, the children have been kidnapped and are being ransomed. In the context of the sketch, it’s unexpected and absurd. That’s what makes it funny. While we know that doing something so blatantly illegal would be wrong, many charities exploit those they serve in a variety of ways. Although those ways might be perfectly legal, they are often in poor taste and could even be unethical. We need to carefully balance telling the stories of those we serve and how we serve them with the interest of safeguarding their privacy and dignity.
  2. Tell a compelling story. To inspire giving, we should tell vivid stories that demonstrate mission fulfillment. We need to illustrate the need and how the donor’s gift will help address that need. In the Key & Peele sketch, the need is quite clear (free/save children) and the impact of the donor’s gift is equally vivid (a dollar ransoms a child). In the scene, the donor quickly decides to give even more. If you tell vivid stories, your donors will be more willing to give and more willing to give more as well.
  3. Laughing Cat by Sham Hardy via FlickrBe specific. In the sketch, the solicitor explains that one dollar will save one child. It’s a simple, compelling message. While organizations love to receive unrestricted donations, development professionals can still talk specifically about how the organization uses gifts. Telling a story about a specific individual will be far more compelling than speaking in generalities or using statistics. The more you can show prospective donors how their gift will be used, the more likely you are to receive a gift and the more likely that gift is to be substantial.
  4. Let donors see the impact their gifts have had and will have. At the end of the scene, the donor gets to see the impact of his gift as the kidnappers free five children from the van though leaving others behind. Seeing this inspires the donor to give more. As part of your stewardship efforts, make sure donors see how their donation has been used. A hospital did a test where the fundraisers told the control group how their donations would be used. For the experiment, fundraisers told members of the test group specifically how donations were used in the prior year and then told them how donations in the current year would be used. The test group generated 68 percent greater results!
  5. Thank your donors. Despite the quick, frenzied scene, the solicitor takes a quick moment to thank the donor. Thanking donors is not a separate function from the raising of funds. It is an essential part of the fundraising cycle. Organizations should look for several ways to thank donors personally and effectively for their support and for caring. As in the sketch, a thank-you can set the stage for the next gift.
  6. Keep your sense of humor. Having a good sense of humor is good for your organization and you. Consider the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge; millions of dollars were raised and public awareness soared. Humor can be an effective fundraising tactic while still drawing attention and support to a serious issue. It’s said that laughter is the best medicine. As fundraising professionals, our lives are often stressful. Laughter is a great way to relieve stress. Developing a good sense of humor is an important survival skill. More specifically, being able to laugh at ourselves is especially important. The good folks at Save the Children demonstrated this skill when they responded to the YouTube posting of the sketch: “LOL. We deal with serious issues every day & glad you made us laugh at ourselves, even if just for a minute.”

As you continue to do your serious work, don’t forget to take time to laugh along the way.

By the way, over 300 fundraising professionals have joined the “Fundraising Humor” group on LinkedIn. You should consider joining to share your own amusing tidbits or, at the very least, to enjoy the funny postings of others.

I also invite you to share your favorite fundraising joke or amusing anecdote below.

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

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4 Comments to “When is Fundraising a Laughing Matter?”

  1. I’m a Key & Peele fan so I saw that sketch when it 1st aired. It had me laughing at the twist.

  2. This is good stuff, Michael. I read a lot of direct mail & email efforts and humor in any form (words, images, both) is pretty rare. One I liked was from the Al Franken for Senate 2014 campaign. The teaser on the #10 outer envelope read: “Republicans agree: Al Franken is #1.” The letter inside explained “I’m one of their top targets in the upcoming elections.”

    He then went on to provide a humorous twist to what is otherwise almost always a dry, paint-by-numbers appeal: “I need people like you to stand with me by supporting my 2014 U.S. Senate re-election campaign. And just to be clear, by ‘stand with,’ and ‘supporting,’ I mean ‘give money to.'”

    This gentle sarcasm works because it fits his background as a comedy writer & performer so well.

    • Paul, thank you for commenting and sharing insight from the Franken for Senate Campaign. When using humor in appeals, you’re right to observe that we need to be true to the organization’s culture and sensitive in how we use humor. For former comedian Franken, injecting humor into the appeal was a perfect fit.

      In the UK’s Remember a Charity promotion, humor was used brilliantly in a series of television commercials. One spot said something like, “Don’t worry, if you don’t have a will, the government will be happy to decide where your money goes after you die. However, if you want to decide, be sure to have a will. And, when you write your will, remember your favorite charity.”

      When used appropriately, humor can cut through the day-to-day clutter and capture the public’s attention. That’s a huge part of the challenge when it comes to fundraising.

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