red and white poppy How donor relationships are built on trust but broken by careless communications – a guest blog by Andrew Tilling.

I’m a peaceful kind of guy, so as a teenage kid, when my English teacher explained her white poppy stood for peace, I had no hesitation in buying one from her and wearing it to a service for Remembrance Sunday, only to spark some conflict at church.  Danny was a veteran in his 80’s whom I held in high regard, and I remember standing aghast at his outburst as he cited, what appears to me now, as tabloid sensationalism in his damning appraisal of the thing.

People can be passionate for a cause, and as third sector professionals, it’s not something we can take lightly. In order to win supporters we can actively target strongly held values in an attempt to obtain a behavioural response. This can backfire if the values we promote don’t exist within the belief structure of those we seek to engage. Consider me as a face to face fundraiser trying to explain how Amnesty International is apolitical and areligious on the streets of Belfast. Repeatedly asked by one fellow if I was Catholic or Protestant I said I was probably more a Buddhist. He responded with the question “A Protestant or a Catholic Buddhist?” We can’t help being controversial at times, and not taking sides can lead us into a chasm where we are simply not heard at all.

It’s easy to ridicule a point of view that doesn’t match our own, but I found when fundraising that is was possible to win somebody over simply by having the courage to take the journey to understand how they arrived at (what appears to be) their ‘crazy’ point of view. I call that courage ’empathy’.

Empathy can tell us a lot about the values of our donors that drive their decisions to give, or to leave. What we do with that understanding will of course vary from organisation to organisation, depending on resources. We can use it to fuel our social media campaigns, strengthen our marketing material or shape our monthly newsletter. Doing nothing, however, can be costly. A lot of profiling is focused on donor acquisition. Perhaps you know your organisation’s perfect supporter, or target certain demographics in an attempt to improve your much needed return on fundraising investment. But great value can exist in getting to know the values of those who already support you, and use that to cultivate a genuine relationship.

A follow up call from UNICEF skillfully converted my one time SMS donation into a regular donation by telling me all about the children’s projects they were working on in Syria. This followed on nicely from the ad campaign on the tube that highlighted the urgency of the Syrian situation for the children there. I was keen to give. My ongoing donations were to be prompted by SMS each month. The very first SMS I received talked about children’s polio vaccinations in Madagascar. I cancelled the regular gift. Of course I care about children, but I particularly wanted to help Syria. Communications like this are taken personally because they are personal. We make them so when we recruit our donors in the first place. What can you do to ensure more relevant stories, which are so good at unconsciously communicating values, reach the ears of those who pay to help you create them?

It’s worth remembering that values are not the whole story. Just because you know something is important to someone, doesn’t mean you understand why it’s important. Two donors can both value not having mail through the door, but for very different reasons. One may be fed up with being bombarded for requests, the other partially sighted and want to save you the admin costs.

Empathy begins at home as it keeps our relationships strong, but empathy is sharpened at work where our relationships, while forged around a common cause, are also most likely to meet values conflicts given the range of backgrounds and expertise of those we may be forced to work with. Seeking to understand what drives or derails other members in a team or work group can greatly improve your chances of coming up with a strategy that everyone can get behind.

I’ve trained and coached many teams and individuals to help them make a difference; in social enterprise, charities and university projects. In my work, empathy is always the first skill to learn because I’ve found empathy to be at the heart of social innovation. Quite simply, and excluding random fluke, our brains can not come up with a viable idea until we have understood the values, both in alignment and in conflict, of all the stakeholders involved in an issue. Social issues exist because the solution isn’t obvious. Honing your empathy skills can be the start of something hugely impactful, if you take the time to make that journey.

Danny’s reaction to the white poppy made an impression on me. How could something that stood for peace be perceived as disdain for those who fought? It was a political argument between two organisations taking place beyond my understanding of the world, and it stirred up something in Danny that taught me something about what it is to survive a war. His anger couldn’t hear my explanation,  and that I wore a red poppy beside my white one did little to appease him. It was a small experience, but it helped shaped my opinion, my values, around highly visible campaigns such as these. It taught me to be sceptical about campaigns that touch on our most precious beliefs and to wear my tattoes on the inside. I still prefer a world without war, and I trust that the money raised by the British Legion goes to helping those who suffer as a result of it. Whether you choose red or white is up to you, but for me what matters is to remember. To remember Danny for why he was so passionate in the first place, remember those whose memory he tried to protect and the values they fought for, and remember to stick a pound in the tin – whether you wear the poppy or not.

Andrew Tilling is the creator of the Storm Process, a powerful tool for social innovation, and provides coaching for teams determined to make a difference in the world, and 1to1 coaching for people who want to make a difference to their own lives.


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