The martyrdom effect refers to the tendency of donors “to prefer forms of giving that involve significant sacrifice and effort, such as running marathons or taking the ice- bucket challenge.” (see Wall Street Journal article mentioned below). It helps explain why many donors prefer volunteering for a charity instead of donating money – in their minds, the former activity seems more noble and requires more effort on their part. They view themselves as being on the front lines, right in the middle of the action compared to just scribbling a check which seems lazy. Passionate donors want to invest blood, sweat and tears into the causes they believe in, even though a cash donation would go much farther in achieving the organizations goals.
For content writers and communications directors, the takeaway from this is clear – craft messages in such a way that acknowledge the donor’s sacrifice in earning to give and emphasize that the donor is as much a part of the organization’s team as the official staff members. An excellent demonstration of how this is done can be seen in a year-end Doctors Without Borders fundraising campaign letter.
The letter, written on behalf of Executive Director Jason Cone, illustrates very powerful ways in which the donor’s financial contributions earned her a spot on the team.
“This year, you were with us conducting war surgery on the front line in Yemen, feeding starving children in northern Nigeria, rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, and fighting yellow fever in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Obviously, the donor wasn’t literally present for any of the aforementioned assignments, but Mr. Cone’s words still make it seem like the donor is part of the adventure. He continues:
“When disaster struck, you helped our medical teams bring a measure of hope – one patient at a time – to millions of people.”
“The Doctors Without Borders interventions you make possible, have an immediate impact on the communities where we work.”
This intimate sense of inclusion isn’t lost by emphasizing how critical a donor’s monetary gifts are to the nonprofit’s operations:
“…You give us the freedom to spend your dollars wherever they are needed most.”
“…Your support gives our teams the flexibility to act quickly in scenarios where acting fast means saving more lives.”
“Your generosity and commitment this year meant that we didn’t have to choose between vaccinating hundreds of thousands of people against yellow fever… taking part in the world’s largest oral cholera vaccination campaign… or striving to protect over 200,000 children… from deadly childhood diseases.”
This last excerpt is especially powerful because it highlights for the donor how the heroic and highly skilled medical team would be forced to make some very difficult ethical choices without her financial support. The specter of choosing between two patients would paralyze even the most skilled physician.
It is true that DWB is sort of an odd test subject to use in examining how the martyrdom effect can be harnessed to write persuasive copy because no ordinary donor could elect to volunteer her time instead of writing a check to DWB – the work performed by the org’s staff is simply too dangerous and requires considerable training and expertise. But still, DWB does a good job letting its supporters tag along for the ride figuratively and, in a way, allows ordinary people to live vicariously through their medical staff. Who doesn’t want to be part of an international life-saving expedition?
So even though DWB doesn’t have a problem with donors trying to volunteer their time instead of their earnings, the writers still do a fantastic job tapping into their donors’ inner martyr to maximize their support and passion for the cause of defending non-privileged lives. It is not only the feeling of being valued that is nurtured, it is also the notion of camaraderie that transforms enthusiasm into life-saving dollars.
Editor’s note “We have emphasized the wisdom of incorporating the pronoun “You” in donor communications. The martyrdom effect now helps us understand why the word “you” resonates so strongly with the donor’s psyche.