Hitting the Emotional Bullseye: Proposals that Target Donor Motivation

As I watched a recent CBS 60 Minutes segment, I wondered how many other development writers were among the audience of millions. There on the screen was the most powerful visual demonstration of the role of emotion in philanthropy.

The segment involved the Gates Scholars, and the clip was perhaps a few seconds out of the entire piece. A young woman – describing the moment her mother opened the letter informing her that she was receiving a Gates Scholarship – came quickly to tears. The camera cut to Bill Gates, also in tears.

Bill and Melinda Gates were sitting with a group of current Gates Scholars, students at the University of Central Florida. In total, the Gateses reportedly have spent a billion dollars sending more than 20,000 first-generation and low-income young people to college. Impressively, nearly 90 percent of those young people have earned a degree.

In the piece, Bill Gates cited a list of rational reasons for the couple’s remarkable generosity. Higher education is the key to higher wages, a strong economy, increased national competitiveness – all true. But what brought him to tears was the change he’d made in that one young woman’s life – the altered trajectory and unleashed potential.

The science behind emotion

Decades ago, as the writer for a university president during one of higher education’s first billion-dollar campaigns, I would sit in the back row and listen to his speeches to alumni and friends. His argument for giving to the university was sound – a classic syllogism about the need for an educated citizenry. Airtight. What he also taught me, though, was the imperative of emotion. He knew how to draw us in, raise our heartbeats, make us worry, make us care, inspire us to imagine a better tomorrow.

While the critical importance of emotion in development writing was clear to me, my “make them cry” mantra triggered eye rolls among some of my colleagues. The questions are familiar – is it too sappy? Off message? Off brand?

A few years ago, when my role largely was writing eight- and nine-figure proposals, I discovered the work of Paul Zak. Finally, scientific evidence of what I knew anecdotally to be true: Emotional engagement inspires giving. Dr. Zak directs the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. His research involves oxytocin, a chemical in the brain that affects altruistic and cooperative behavior. Through a series of studies, Dr. Zak and his team demonstrated that high oxytocin levels – stimulated through increased empathy – correlate with increased amounts and rates of giving.

I had proof.

Know which levers to pull

But how best to incorporate the right emotive elements in proposals? That’s where art meets science. It starts with knowing the donor. Motivations for giving vary widely, as all of us who work in mission-driven organizations know. Civic pride. Family legacy. The opportunity to honor a loved one, to repay good fortune, to right a wrong.

Hitting the Emotional Bullseye: Proposals that Target Donor Motivation Civic pride, for example, might draw on a city’s unique collaborative spirit and the need to ensure subsequent generations have the benefit of that collegial community. Righting a wrong is about ensuring a past injustice does not prevail in the future.

Those motivations – and the emotions behind them – are requisite for all major gifts, and perhaps for all philanthropy. To be sure, tapping into a donor’s emotions is only part of the case. You also need facts and data, a rational path to a solution, institutional partnership, and accountability, and so much more.

In my experience, though, the emotional bullseye is the philanthropic linchpin. Hit the heart, and your proposal is well on its way.

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Want to talk about proposal writing? Please join me and my colleague Ed Sevilla next Wednesday, May 16, at 12:30 p.m. ET, for our free half-hour webinar, “Three Fundamentals of Compelling Proposals.” Click here to register!

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