The buzzsaw of broken dreams – 4 keys to making projects relatable to your audience

We all have a long list of dreams, things we want to accomplish. Some are things we want to accomplish immediately, some may take a year or two and some may require a lifetime to accomplish.

Dreams and goals are a language that everyone understands. They are a commonality of the human existence. They are often what propels us forward and drives us to succeed.

But have you ever stopped to consider that someone else’s unfulfilled dream or uncompleted goal could be preventing you from achieving your goals?

While dreams and goals are something we have in common and often these are a uniting force, something for others to rally around and help us push forward. The reality is that everyone of us also has broken dreams and unreached goals that taint our view of what is possible.

I recently read an interview on Vox with Paul Slovic about his research into the human capacity for compassion in the face of atrocity and disaster. I think it has a lot of different applications to the nonprofit sector and to how we position ourselves.

His research focused on how people reacted to the scale of a problem. He found that the larger the scale of the problem the less inclined people were to feel like they could make a difference. In general people will jump in to help one person or one family but willingness to help and get involved falls dramatically as the number of people in need rises.

As I was reading and thinking about this concept I realized that it is not just the fact that we like to talk about the problem and the scale of the problem that hinders our efforts to raise money and get people involved. It is the way we frame our work.

We have a habit of talking about our dreams as non profits.

As nonprofits we often hope that showing the scale of the problem and casting a vision for a world where the problem no longer exists will inspire people to get involved and give, and for some it does.

Slovic’s research has proven that this method of connecting with our audience will not work with the majority of people we interact with.

So our marketing plan based on problem and scale runs into the buzzsaw of indifference to large numbers. This is also where we run into a different form of competition. Our audience has a large collection of broken dreams and unachieved goals. When we frame a large scale problem and cast our vision for eradicating it we begin to lose people who have tried to tackle smaller problems and failed, or who have seen others try to address similar problems and failed.

Using the scale of humanitarian problems to cast a vision for involvement and change plays into the natural fear of things that are larger than our personal capacity for relationship and personal interaction. It dredges up big dreams from our audiences past that they have failed to achieve.

These memories of past failure plant seeds of doubt about our organizations ability to effectively address the problem. These doubts about effectiveness directly affect our audiences willingness to give.

I know from personal experience that I have considered giving to a many causes but stopped short of giving because I felt the organization was not equipped to take on the problem at the scale they were advertising they could. 

To be clear each of these organizations was doing good work and making peoples lives better. But the language they used to talk about their project and what they wanted to do had a big impact on my willingness to give.

So how do we avoid triggering these doubts and worries in our audiences? How can we communicate about the work we are doing and the work we want to do without overwhelming our audience and donor base.

Paul Slovic in his interview with Vox said that based on his research:

“The (perceived) value of a persons life declines precipitously with number”

Use scale for successes instead of problems.

I would propose that as non profits we move from talking about wanting to conquer the scale of the problem to talking about the scale of the effect we are having on individuals and families. We need to reduce the scale of the problem and our solution to the most relatable relationship possible, one person, one family.

These are the basic building blocks of the human existence, once we begin talking about the problem in a scale greater than this, our audience becomes increasingly disengaged and finds it harder to believe that we can be effective.

The first key is to talk about what we are accomplishing, not what we are are hoping to see accomplished, especially in terms of numbers of people.

Here is an example:

“This week we provided school supplies to 100 children, so they could start school next week. $5 provides school supplies for one child to go to school for a semester. We need to raise $500 more by Friday to get supplies for all the school eligible children in our area that can’t afford them so they can start school, can you help us send 1 child to school?

In the situation above, we are using scale to talk about what we have accomplished in terms of people. We have already outfitted 100 children for school, most parents understand the hassle and difficulty of getting 2 or 3 kids ready to start school so 100 seems like a worthy accomplishment.

Then we move to the need but our need is shown in a different form, dollars. If our audience does the math they can see that we are trying to raise money for another 100 students, but we are not addressing the scale in terms of people we are addressing it in a small, relatable, easily accomplished amount. Most people would rather deal with $500 that 100 people. We deal with amounts that size all the time. $500 seems like a reachable goal, even at $5 increments. While 100 people feels more abstract, and is less relatable because we rarely need to interact with or think about situations involving 100 people.

By being intentional and choosing how we define the scale of what we want to do we can avoid unintentionally overwhelming our audience with the scale of our projects.

Here are a couple more examples of scale:

“We care for 30 amazing children who have lost their parents” vs. “There are 153 million orphans in the world, help us end the orphan crisis.

No one can believably claim that they can solve the orphan crisis. It is too complex and the numbers are too vast. To make the claim it is possible or to invite people to pursue that dream is simply a grandstanding marketing ploy that the audience and donors will eventually grow weary of. 

We’ve funded 28,389 water projects for 8.2 million people around the world.”(Charity Water) vs “There are 700 million people without clean water.”

In the quote above charity water puts scale to their solution. They have funded 28,389 water projects, they have given clean water to 8 million people. They are showing vast effectiveness instead of vast problems. It’s a totally different script. Higher up on the first page of their website they state the problem in a relationally relatable way. 

“1 in 10 people lack access to clean water. We’re on a mission to change that. Here’s how.” (Charity Water)

1 in 10 people is a scale we can relate to, it seems like a solvable problem. much more solvable than 700 million people who lack access to clean water.

Tell personal stories

Another effective way to communicate with our audiences about the problem we are solving is by appealing to our relational nature by telling individual stories of how the solution you are providing is creating positive change on the ground with real people. To continuing the example above tell people about a student that has received school supplies, what her family is like, why she needed them, what they help her accomplish and what she hopes to be when she grows up. Then ask the audience to get involved and help one more child receive the necessary supplies to go to school.

Choose the scale of fundraiser carefully

Choose the scale of online fundraising projects carefully. Setting up a project on or other similar sites is a great way to get people to rally around a cause. However if your organization is new to running projects like this online it is important to build the capacity of your audience slowly over time. It you start with a $50,000 project your first time you will likely run into your audiences limits in terms of their ability to deal with scale.

From personal experience I know that I look at a lot of GoFundMe pages and the first thing I look at is the current response to the project and how long it has been going. If it is a $50,000 project, has been running for 2 weeks and has only raised $500 I’m probably not going to donate because I feel like the project is doomed and will never get off the ground. So for a first effort to learn the system and get your audience in the habit why not pick something small that can be completed for $1000 or less. It will allow you to practice running the promotion and gives your audience something easily achievable to get involved with.

Over time you can slowly scale the size of these projects as your the capacity and size of your audience increases. Over time it can become an effective way to raise awareness and funds but it will take time.

To summarize the keys points to remember are:

1. Reduce the scale of the problem as much as possible
2. Use large scale to talk about your accomplishments
3. Make the situation relatable with success stories
4. Grow your audiences capacity over time.

You May Also Like…


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.