image You’ve seen this photo before.

It’s the icon of urban rescue mission fundraising. Among rescue mission insiders, he’s “Old Man Eating”—or, if you’ve been in the business for a long time, “OME.” An elderly white male, bearded, sitting at a table and eating. This photo is how you raise money for rescue missions. It works. For decades missions have been testing against it: So far, to my knowledge, it’s unbeatable.

Trouble is, he’s not typical of those served by most rescue missions. And many who work at rescue missions are bored silly with him. Furthermore, if you ask donors to missions whether it’s more important to focus on helping homeless old men or homeless children, they usually tell you children.

Yet donor acquisition efforts that feature pictures of children don’t work. OME outperforms kids every time.

It’s fundraising dissonance. Old Man Eating touches people’s hearts and motivates them to give. Even though he’s not the real picture of the need. Even though these very same donors know that helping younger people is more impactful. 

That’s because the decision to give is an emotional one, not a rational one. Emotional triggers, not rational ones, are those that motivate giving. And OME is a potent emotional trigger.

So what are you going to do? 

Stubbornly insist on showing the “real” need—and cripple your ability to do your work by decreasing the number of donors who join you? That would be malfeasance.

Spend a zillion dollars trying to “educate” every donor in America about the real problem? That won’t work—anyway, they already know.

No, there’s a better solution: Meet donors where they are—not where you wish they’d be. Put forth the need that motivates them to respond. Then you earn the right to have the conversation with them about what you do, and who you (and they) serve. Those who are ready to move beyond the gut reaction to OME will do just that. 

That’s what’s hard about fundraising: If you want to succeed, you have to respect donors—even when they’re “wrong.”


imageJeff Brooks is creative director at Merkle|Domain, a direct-response agency serving the nonprofit world.  He blogs at the Donor Power Blog.

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