What fundraisers can learn from reality TV shows

fundraising and reality tv showsCan’t we be “real” with our donors, advocates, volunteers and other supporters?
As of the writing of this article, fourteen of the top fifty television shows in the United States are reality shows including the NFL games (sporting competitions are real— not scripted), Dancing With the Stars, The Voice, 60 Minutes, American Idol, The Bachelor and Undercover Boss.
Reality TV is popular. There is no doubt about it. But not for the reasons you and most self-appointed experts might think. They wrongly figure that reality TV viewers watch because they are not very smart and they want to talk to their friends about the shows.
Why people watch reality TV 
According to an article in Psychology Today by Steven Reiss (Professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University) and James Wiltz (Ph.D. candidate at OSU at the time of their research), the truth about why people watch reality TV is something to which nonprofits might want to pay more attention. People like reality TV simply because the shows deliver really good stories— drama, suspense, morality, and more. But, on top of all that, the shows provide watchers with prestige.
Now, you might now be saying to yourself, “Huh, I don’t understand. What does prestige have to do with it?” Stay with me on this.
Reiss and Wiltz found that reality TV makes an ordinary person who is watching along feel that the ordinary people on the TV show are important (because millions of people are watching them). And, in a somewhat voyeuristic way, the ordinary viewer gets a “secret thrill” imagining that the reality stars could actually be them.
“But what’s this got to do with fundraising?” you might ask.
Too often nonprofits fail to deliver to their supporters what reality TV delivers to millions of viewers every night. And, remember, advertisers pay dearly for those eyes and ears.
Nonprofits fail to provide good stories for their supporters.
Nonprofits don’t tell their stories well.
Nonprofits don’t invest in telling their stories well.
Nonprofits don’t give their supporters enough drama and suspense.
Nonprofits don’t offer their supporters opportunities to demonstrate their morality.
Nonprofits don’t provide their supporters with opportunities to feel prestige— to feel like a hero in their own life story.
Nonprofits need more reality!
Reality, realism, authenticity, truth, sincerity, substance and genuineness will result in loyalty and trust. Every top fundraiser and every fundraising expert knows that campaigns succeed when they are real. Tweet This
Reality makes stories better. Reality gives supporters a chance to save the day and feel good about themselves. Unlike reality TV, nonprofit supporters can act. They can participate and get involved. They don’t have to be voyeuristic bystanders. They can donate, volunteer, sign a petition, or lobby congress. Plus they can share their experience to involve others.
Reality draws forth emotion.
All of these decisions to get involved are influenced by emotion. That’s why telling a real, true story moves people. They are powerful, motivational and inspirational. Real stories provide the “secret thrill” donors want and need to feel really terrific. After all, that’s what everyone wants deep down inside— to feel good. To get their mid-brains firing. To get oxytocin and dopamine released.
Therefore, nonprofits need to stop being so uptight. They need to open up and become more real. More transparent. More genuine.
They need to invite their supporters to view live feed streaming videos of the good work they do while it’s being done. They need to turn on a camera at their board meetings so supporters can watch them work (like C-SPAN). And, they need to provide windows into how their money is being spent (for instance with interviews of researchers seeking a cure for cancer via online webinars).
Yes, indeed, nonprofits need to be more real. Failing to match reality TV for their supporters’ eyes and ears is holding them back.
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