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Can Funny and Fundraising Mix?

The # rule of fundraising is that urgency matters. Poverty, environmental disaster, and most of the causes that drive people to create nonprofits are urgent, often life and death, matters. They are also potent fundraising tools. For years, many nonprofits have paid the bills by raising the alarm over one crisis or another that only you, the donor, can solve.

Think of Singer Sarah McLachlan, whose SPCA commercial about abused dogs is so sad she says she can't even watch it without crying. Somebody is watching, because it has raised much more than $30 million...some say in the neighborhood of $200 million. Studies do support that playing on negative emotions, especially combined with and sense of urgency spur people to give more.

But at a cost. The SPCA ad has become the poster child of over-the-top crisis fundraising. Overly emotional pitches can turn people off when they feel manipulated, and we can become desensitized to the "crisis-of-the-day" approach. We just turn off our attention.

That's where humor comes in. Funny can often get people's attention where tragedy can't. We already know how awful it is to abandon a pet (Thanks Sarah!) and why we need to fund animal rescue organizations. So, check out the approach that an Atlanta no-kill shelter, FurKids, took:

A couple things to know:

  • FurKids is a $4 million-a-year nonprofit with a great reputation for being well-run.

  • The "star" of this commercial is just a supporter who volunteered to write, perform, edit, and do the world's worst imitation of Sarah McLachlan.

  • The shaky camera work, corny jokes and bad acting are what makes it work. Anything more than this low-tech approach would have fallen flat.

The lesson here is that you can make high impact appeals for low dollars. Shoot on a smartphone. Use a budget mic. Edit on open-source software. But the content must be sterling.

A few years ago, a European group launched Raidi-Aid, which gave out the Golden Radiator Award to videos that were socially responsible. In the process they launched one of the funniest parodies of foreign aid projects, involving a mythical African corporation's effort to help the poor Norwegians who are forced to live without sunshine for part of the year.

It is worth remembering that Red Nose Day, the annual fundraiser which involved comedians, has raised more than $270 million since being introduced to the United States in 2015.

On the other hand, nothing falls flatter than a bad joke, as an Australian newscaster discovered when he tried to tell a joke to the Dalai Lama:

So be careful. Follow a few rules:

  • Tone matters. It must be compatible with your mission and culture.

  • Laugh with, not at. Mean humor doesn't work. That's why Don Rickles was a comedian and not a nonprofit fundraiser.

  • No inside jokes. We can all laugh about our own organizations because we work there; that doesn't fly with people outside the organization.

  • Age appropriate. Are jokes that work with your 20-year-old intern going to hit home with your retiree major donor?

Humor in fundraising may not be for everyone and can't be used all the time, but it has its place, especially in a world where we are bombarded with bad news. There are times when we just need a laugh!


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