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Frame Your Appeal By Ron Frey

How will you frame your appeal now?

How is your fundraising appeal doing in the midst of massive cultural change? The impact of COVID-19, George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the polarization of politics around so many social and economic issues, are shifting what donors feel is their highest priority for giving. How will they respond to you and your cause now?

The appeal for justice has long been a powerful motivator for donors, but the past two months have been a game changer for those causes, filling their coffers with an arsenal of cash to begin advocacy on a massive scale. In June, The New York Times reported that ActBlue has processed more than $250 million to various progressive causes and candidates in the two-plus weeks following the George Floyd murder. While social justice groups are major winners in this environment, other worthy charities appear to be at risk of losing support.

This raises some interesting questions about fundraising: Does this wave of support indicate that people’s giving priorities has fundamentally shifted, or is it a temporary diversion that will fade after donors feel they have done their part? In this hyper-competitive and sensitive marketplace, how do you communicate that the donor’s gift to your organization is still relevant and vital?

And for copywriters, what should be your copy platform when, if you don’t address the current issues, you could come across as tone deaf; but if you say the wrong thing you’ll become a victim of “cancel culture?” How, in this environment, do you frame your appeals?

I think we can learn from the New Testament book of Philemon, which remarkably, is about a slave and a slave owner. The Apostle Paul’s request of Philemon, a slave owner, is to restore the relationship with his runaway slave, Onesimus, and to do so in brotherly Christian love. A study of this brief epistle suggests three possible copy platforms that invite a gift based on love, reconciliation and friendship.

The Appeal of Love

Paul writes, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. 8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.”

Although Paul could have used his authority as an apostle, he chose to base his appeal on love.

The imposition of spiritual authority, fear, the insinuation of guilt and the appeasement of it has no place in Christian fundraising. The only sustainable motivation for Philemon is to restore a relationship with Onesimus, a thief who had stolen from him, and under Roman law

was worthy of a death sentence, had to be based on a love that allows both parties to forgive and move on. Paul’s appeal required Philemon to give up his legal and economic rights so that reconciliation could take place. And in doing so, to demonstrate to the world that this kind of love changes everything.

Let your appeals be rooted and grounded in love, because God loves the people you serve, and so do you. Your love-based appeal invites givers to demonstrate their love through generosity. Remind your donors that God loves a cheerful giver.

The Appeal of  Reconciliation

Next, Paul uses the credibility of his age and status to anchor his request.

“It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.”

This is a very personal appeal. While Philemon may have thought Onesimus had become worthless and worthy of death for running away, Paul elevates his stature by calling him his son. He calls upon Philemon to be the agent of grace, offering redemption, and thus demonstrating for others what God had done for him. This is not just a theological argument; it’s a practical appeal. He declares that Onesimus, having been transformed by Christ, is now more useful to them both. His argument is essentially this: if God no longer counts men’s sins against them, then who are you, Philemon, to decide otherwise? Reconciliation between these two brothers in Christ demonstrates God’s merciful treatment of us all.

Use stories in your appeals that illustrate how people are reconciled to God and to each other. Invite your donors to join you as an agent of reconciliation in the lives of people you serve.

The Appeal of Friendship

Next, Paul continues his appeal for Onesimus’ freedom, not just a release of his slavery but his full fellowship as a brother in the Lord.

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He isvery dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

To make the restoration of the relationship between slave and master complete, Paul asks Philemon to release Onesimus, and to credit his debt to Paul’s account. The economic impact of this decision is secondary to the much higher cause that Paul has appealed to – the essentiality of being joined as brothers in the body of Christ, living as equals, and demonstrating grace to one another. This is the only way to transform a world that uses power structures to rule the lives of others.

Friendship is a motivator because it has the power to either affirm or disappoint. Affirm the importance of your donors friendship in the life of the ministry. As you ask for support, remind your donors that you are friends and partners in a common cause that you both cherish. Their partnership is key, now more than ever, to make a lasting difference in the lives of those whom you serve.

Love, redemption and friendship are powerful motivators when asking for a gift. Apply these principles to your appeals, and demonstrate to your donors the grace and mercy of God, to which we’ve been called as agents of reconciliation.


Ron Frey​ is president of F​rey Resource Group,​ helping nonprofit organizations achieve success in leadership, governance and fundraising.

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