I can't save all of those cats and dogs on death row in animal shelters, but I can pledge to get our next pet from a rescue organization (and we are, next week!)
I can't cure world hunger, but I can volunteer in a new community garden that will grow vegetables for a local food pantry.
If you ask people to do things that are too vague or too overwhelming, they won't do them. We see that time and again. That's why fundraising appeals with stories about helping a single person usually work better than stories about helping the masses.
Yes, there are exceptions to every rule and examples where nonprofits have asked people to do very hard, time-consuming, and expensive things, and their supporters have come through. But that's usually not the case. (For a great review of the latest in behavioral psychology applied to the nonprofit world, check out Lisa Simpson for Nonprofits.)
What's That Very Next, Single Step?
While I haven't been able to fully adopt David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Amazon) into my own personal and work life, I have latched on to several of the basic tenets. For example, instead of listing out all of the things you need to do for all of the projects you are working on, GTD says to list in front of you only the "next action step." It forces you to break down big jobs into many baby steps that you put in order, and you focus on only that next step for each project.
While the GTD model was designed for personal time management, you can also use it to make your calls to action more specific.
Let's say you want to save the whales. Great. But I don't live on the coast and I get seasick, so there's nothing I can do, unless . . .
You ask me to watch a video about whaling. And then ask me to send a protest email to someone in power.
Or you ask me to pledge to stop buying products from a company that uses whale parts.
Watching a video or taking a pledge are simple, clear, next steps that I can take that, in the long-run, will help save the whales.
Let's say you help women get out of abusive relationships. You can't just say, "Leave your husband." It's too big of a step, with too many complications, and therefore it's too overwhelming.
But you could say, "Call this phone number when you can talk privately." Or "Tell one friend what's happening to you. Someone needs to know." Or "Teach your child how to call 911." These are all much more clear, simple, next steps that could ultimately lead a woman to safety.
Don't ask your supporters to save the world. Ask them to take that one next action step that puts them on the very first stepping stone to cross that wide river with you.
Join me for a webinar on April 28, 2011 called Making the Ask: Getting People to Give, Volunteer, and More.
This article first appeared in the April 19, 2011 edition of Nonprofit Marketing Tips, our weekly e-newsletter.