What Fundraisers Can Learn From American Girl, Kindergarten, and Gangsta’ Rap

Meaningful experiences are a gateway for prospective donors to interact with and learn about your organization. They can help create the kinds of lasting relationships that are key to an organization’s sustained success, all while differentiating you from your competition.

In today’s crowded philanthropic landscape, it’s more important than ever to look beyond the trends highlighted at nonprofit conferences for ideas and inspiration. Consider these lessons when crafting your donor experiences.

Show, Don’t Tell

Heeding this old writing adage can pay off dividends in crafting meaningful experiences, especially if your organization has unique physical characteristics that donors can touch. Here’s why: According to a 2010 psychology study, “People often project the physical qualities of objects they touch with their surroundings.” In fact, they found it actually influenced their perception of what they experienced.

Your local American Girl doll store is a prime example. Each store’s merchandising layout is orchestrated meticulously with dolls and accessories that call to excited children, “Pick me up! Let’s play!” What’s more is that, after the sales associate patiently helps you and your daughter select the doll, matching wardrobe, pet companion, and roll-away suitcase, you can dine in style with your daughter and her new doll, Grace, at the store’s upstairs bistro. (Yes, you read that correctly—bistro.)

Want further proof? Look at the pure joy on my daughter’s face in the photo below. Still not convinced? Write me and I can show you the bill my wife and I racked up for our daughter on our latest trip.


“Show, don’t tell” also served me well when I worked with scientists to give prospective donors “behind-the-scenes” lab tours. We didn’t just tell donors about the amazing science underway—they experienced it. They peered through microscopes; they donned the very same protective hair nets, rubber gloves, and jumpsuits that the scientists worked in everyday. They witnessed firsthand how their philanthropy could make an impact.

Small Gestures Make a Big Difference

More often than not, it’s little, everyday gestures that go a long way.

Take, for example, Boston eatery Falafel King, whose smiling staff greets you with free falafel to curb your hunger while you wait in line to place your order. It’s one of the many reasons their following of ravenous patrons continues to grow.

In an instance from my prior job, a donor mentioned that his son’s celiac disease made it difficult to find gluten-free food he could eat. It was especially heartbreaking to hear how his little boy couldn’t eat chocolate chip cookies (the child’s favorite) like most other kids his age. For me, this would not stand. I bought a box of gluten-free chocolate chip cookie mix from my neighborhood Whole Foods and shipped it to the family with a handwritten note. The response? One of the best thank you notes I’ve ever received from the donor, who wanted to discuss possible options for their next gift.

My next example comes from the launching point of everyone’s educational journey: kindergarten. Like so many parents across the nation, my wife and I recently took part in the ritual of delivering our daughter to her first day of school—an emotional and unsettling event for many parents. Our daughter’s teacher, recognizing the weight of this moment, presented the following card, along with a packet of tissues, to each parent:


The response? Many appreciative, teary-eyed parents (including yours truly) asking how they could give time and money.

Don’t Neglect Your Online Presence

The growing power of millennials is cause enough for your organization to provide meaningful online opportunities for prospective donors to engage, support, and, especially, evangelize your cause. Fail to do so, and you risk giving prospects a reason to donate their time and money elsewhere.

While many laud the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as a shining example of a great online experience (and rightly so), a favorite of mine from the non-philanthropic domain is the “Straight Outta Somewhere” meme-generator marketing campaign for rap group N.W.A.’s biopic, Straight Outta Compton.

Inspired by the N.W.A. album Straight Outta Compton, the campaign took form when three Beats by Dre employees realized that the album’s narrative was so powerful because it was about being proud of where you’re from. Enter North Kingdom ad agency, who created a meme generator allowing anyone to input their own hometown into N.W.A’s signature black and white logo.


(I tried it, using my own childhood photo. It’s as fun as advertised. #StraightOuttaWilbraham)

Since the site’s launch, the meme generator has racked up seven million visitors, six million downloads (and counting), all while trending No. 1 two days in a row across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. According to Twitter, more than 400,000 tweets have mentioned #StraightOutta since the launch.

What makes this online campaign so exceptional is how it transformed into a movement, enabling fans across the globe to connect with the movie (and others) in an compelling way. Much like N.W.A.’s 1988 album did for the city of Compton, the meme generator allowed fans to “put themselves on the map.” Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson best explained the merits of this kind of campaign:

“[Even if] you’re not necessarily targeting those who [fall into your core audience], if social media catches on, the effect is a deluge of free publicity… both in terms of coverage of said fad and in terms of users indirectly creating a self-made advertisement for all the world to see. Free publicity, especially when it is of the positive nature, is the best kind… because it is risk-free.”

To create deeply memorable experiences for your donors, experiment with these guidelines (and your own) to see what works best for you.

Are you a gift officer? Do you want to hack into new levels of productivity? Check out Patrick’s last post

Patrick Rooney has worked in development for more than a decade, supporting organizations such as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, and, most recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. He lives in Boston with his wife, Nicole, and their two children, worships the Red Sox, and is obsessed with the classic movie Jaws. Send your questions, comments, and story ideas to him via LinkedIn or patrickfrooney@gmail.com.

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