When Calls to Action Fail

It seems that every article I’ve read recently about social media engagement and non-profit management emphasizes the importance of a call to action. It’s not enough to tell your readers about yourself; you need to give them a push to follow it up with some kind of action. On that point I do not disagree. But these arbitrary deadlines remind me of infomercials and are at odds with the behavior I expect from respected non-profits. I’ve seen a few that, in my eyes, fail in a bit way: these arbitrary deadlines can make a casual reader think that donations are not needed after the deadline.

After spending the New Year’s weekend offline, I had a lot of catching up to do. Twitter and LinkedIn go on without me and some of my blogger friends didn’t take the weekend off.

As I was checking up on e-mail I noticed that December 30 and 31 had been especially busy. No, it wasn’t friends extending their wishes for 2011; it was various non-profit organizations shilling for year-end donations. In all I deleted 43 e-mail messages received in just those two days from various charitable organizations urging me to send them a donation before the December 31 “deadline.”

My question is, why the urgent deadline and what, exactly, is dead?

Here’s an example from a message I received:

This is the last chance for your donation to [Charity] to count for your 2010 tax deduction. And it’s the last chance to enter [Charity]’s raffle.

Note the bold orange text: “This is the last chance for your donation…” Or what? The whales dies, the last tree is cut down, the orphans and refugees are left out in the cold? No, it’s just that the tax deduction for my contribution will be carried over to the next year—and I miss out on a raffle. That’s all, no big deal. But that bright orange text, the flood of messages, each more urgent than the one before… On December 31 some organizations push their pitch to an even greater urgency: “Only 12 hours to donate!” “Six hours left!”

Um, excuse me? You’re not going to accept my donation after midnight December 31?

Sometimes non-profits have legitimate deadlines, as when organizations ask us to e-mail our elected officials about pending legislation. That e-mail needs to be delivered before the scheduled vote. Or perhaps a foundation or a board member has offered to match donations up to a certain date. But most donations are welcome any time. If it matters to me that my donation will be tax-deductible, I probably know the deadline already—but that is the deadline for taking a tax deduction this year, not the deadline for sending a donation. After scanning 43 e-mail messages I came away with the sense that the message has gotten skewed.

Here’s my idea for a year-end call to action that won’t have donors scratching their heads, wondering if you organization will still be in business after January 1 and accepting donations:

Your donations to [charity] in 2010 have helped promote our important work and we look forward to we look forward to your continuing support in 2011. If you donate by December 31, your donation will be tax-deductible in 2010.

I’m all for calls to action. When you e-mail a donor, a customer, a client, a volunteer you want them to know the purpose of your message. You want them to respond. But you don’t want to scare them away or make them think that some fictitious deadline has passed and there’s no need to bother.

So here’s my call to action: This post is part of my series on how things sometimes fail (or #FAIL, as we say on Twitter) and how they can be put right again.  What bad calls to action have you seen recently? Tell us about it in a comment. (There’s no deadline.)

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