Updated: Oct 26
Spring is in full bloom here in the midwest, which means last weekend was the perfect time to take my family to the St. Louis Zoo for the first time this year. Our zoo is a cultural treasure that always surprises and delights visitors. Usually, when people think about St. Louis, they quickly zero in on three things: the Arch (obviously), the Cardinals (especially important this time of year), and our pizza (the best in the world, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise). The zoo somehow misses the list for many.
That’s always surprised me, because our zoo, which has been recognized as the best in the country, is an incredible experience. Best of all, it’s free for everyone to enter.
While my favorite part of walking around the zoo is seeing the joy on my kids’ faces as they see their favorite animals, I always find myself in “fundraising mode” as I look at the exhibits. Mostly, that manifests itself as fundraising envy as I look at all of the amazing ways the zoo has leveraged naming opportunities on their exhibits.
Simply put, it’s a masterclass in bringing a mission to life.
I can only imagine how beautiful the conversations with donors must have been as they discussed gifts to put in the new primate exhibit, for instance. The ability to bring conservation to life for hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, along with the joy it would bring to kids and adults, had to be moving for the people who contributed to making it possible.
Over the years I’ve thought about those conversations and tried to relay them back to my own fundraising. I’ve had the privilege to work on a range of amazing causes, both as a Development Officer and a Consultant, but I’ve never had a primate exhibit to name. It’s always taken a little more thought and creativity to think about how to bring the mission to life.
That may seem like a simple thought exercise, but it’s actually much more important: it can be the difference between a fundraising ask (whether it's an annual appeal, a grant, a major gift, or anything else) landing effectively or falling flat.
So often, we fall into the trap of saying “your gift will support our mission to…” and repeat our elevator pitch about the mission. While that’s all technically true, it probably doesn’t hit the same emotional buttons with donors as it does with us. As fundraisers and staff members, we live the mission every day. When we hear the same pitch, we know exactly what the gift will do, along with the impact it will have.
To people on the outside, though, we need to think more creatively about how we do that. Here are some things to consider when you share your mission:
Testimonials: What stories do you have from people who are willing to speak about your work? Nothing brings a mission to life better than actual lives that have been touched by it. You’ll always want to make sure you have permission to share people’s words and experiences, but when you find the right ambassador to share how you have changed their life, you’ll have perfect material for a fundraising pitch.
Statistics: Sometimes the scale of your work can shock people. When I worked in mental health, we had a range of statistics we used to demonstrate the scale of the problem we were trying to address, which were so shocking I sometimes had people try to fact-check me…only to come back confirming what we had said and stunned by the amount of need we had to address. Be careful not to rely solely on numbers, but use them to illustrate the need for and impact of your work.
Impact Metrics: Beyond the broader statistics about societal issues, what are the ways to illustrate the way you’re addressing the problem? How many lives are you impacting? How many people go through a program and achieve an outcome? These figures can bring a mission to life and build trust in your ability to carry out the work. This is a powerful tool, but make sure to be thoughtful with how you use it. Think about how it reflects on those you serve, and avoid presenting it as an over-simplified impact-per-dollar metric that trivializes the life experiences of those you serve.
Tangible Experiences: Yes, a trip to see the primates is a no-brainer. But what else can you do with a donor to help them experience the mission firsthand? Maybe it’s a tour of a facility, a conversation with subject matter experts, or a behind-the-scenes experience. This will be unique to your cause, but try to have a list of options for when those opportunities present themselves.
While we all can’t put donors’ names on animal exhibits, we all have unique ways that we can bring our mission to life and move donors emotionally.
This is a forgotten element in so many fundraising appeals I see, but it’s a surefire way to connect with donors and close more gifts.
If you want to talk about how to close gifts or your favorite zoo animals, our team of nonprofit fundraising consultants is here and ready to talk!
Elliot Chambers-making new friends at the Zoo!