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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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Raise the problem, be the solution - Somewhere between fear and hope, a check is written
Tom Ahern

September, 2007

In advertising, the most common messaging formula goes like this: if you have a particular problem, we have a great solution.

"Do you have dirty bathroom tiles? We have a foaming, easy to use, nontoxic spray in a unbreakable plastic bottle that will make your embarrassing tiles look like new."

Problem/solution: it's the most prevalent logic in ads. The logic works in fundraising, too. First, you talk about a problem that exists. Then you offer your organization's mission or vision as a remedy to that problem. Woven into every inch of the discussion are emotional triggers.

There are negative-leaning emotions (anger, sadness, fear). There are positive-leaning emotions (caring, joy, hope). People seek relief from the negative. They desire the positive.

When you talk about a problem, use negative emotional triggers. When you talk about the solution (i.e., your organization's mission), use positive emotional triggers. Somewhere between the two emotions, the negative and the positive, the predisposed mind decides to act. "The community has a problem. Your organization has a solution. I, as a donor, can help."

Two emotions, negative and positive, working together to kindle giving: we call such a pairing an "emotional twin set." It's a name (blithely) borrowed from women's fashion. Two sweaters designed to be worn together are a twin set. Similarly, two emotions working together to raise money are a twin set.

Call it what you like, the twin set notion has intrinsic power. Using negative and positive emotions in combination mimics a dualistic view of the world that is already common in most brains: good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. When you match a preexisting mental outlook, people will understand your argument intuitively. There's less you'll need to explain.

Putting twin sets to work is easy. The following is a basic sequence of messages you can use in any type of fundraising communication. The sequence derives from advertising's dependable problem/solution formula and always includes a call to action:

1. Brew emotional unease with negative emotions.

2. Relieve that unease with positive emotions.

3. Ask the donor for help.

Below are some examples of how this problem/solution sequence works. You'll encounter disturbing emotions like fear and anger. You'll encounter reassuring emotions like hope, pride, and exclusivity. Note one other detail. In each instance, the case for support is time-stamped: it talks about the situation as it exists right now. Donors give now because the need is urgent.

>> For a tutoring program

"Four out of five inmates have no high school diploma, and that's no coincidence. If you're a taxpayer, you're right to worry about our city's appalling graduation rates, because you're paying twice: once to send our children to school, a second time to deal with the aftermath when they fail. But it doesn't have to be that way. Our tutoring programs have proven effective in keeping kids in schools and successful all the way to graduation. We're ready to grow. Are you ready to help?"

>> For a family planning center

"These are dark days nationally in the struggle to keep theology out of women's health care. But here, in our state, we continue to win our battles, day after day (those picketers never quit), year after year (certain legislators never quit), thanks to your continued support. Now we need you more than ever."

>> For a college embarking on an endowed chairs campaign among alumni

"Competition for the leading minds of our time has never been fiercer. Comparable schools have hundreds of endowed chairs, attracting top scholars and ambitious students who want to study under them. We're vulnerable. We have just 15 endowed chairs right now. But within two years, I promise you, we can change all that…if you're ready to reach for the stars."

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit and donor communications. His "Love Thy Reader" workshops win rave reviews at fundraising conferences across the U.S. and Canada. Tom's workshops have trained thousands of nonprofit staff and board in the revenue-building secrets of psychology, marketing, writing, and graphic design. In 2005 he joined other world-class experts as a faculty member for the IFC's weeklong conference in the Netherlands, attended by fundraisers from 80 countries. He is the author of The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, released in October 2005 by Emerson & Church. A second book titled How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money. John Wiley & Sons, the premier publisher of books for the nonprofit industry, in January 2006 contracted with Tom (and his wife, consultant Simone Joyaux) to produce a new book with the working title, Nonprofit Fundraising Communications: A Practical and Profitable Approach. Tom is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health, women's rights and other social justice issues. Visit


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