At the top of your spinal column, there is a walnut-sized region of the brain called the amygdala, which is commonly called the “old brain” as humans started out with it thousands of years ago. Despite the fact that our brains are much bigger now – with a “new brain” that processes information rationally – research has shown that the amygdala still plays a key role in our emotions and drives our decision making.

Why do I bring this up? Because speaking to a donor’s amygdala is often the key to philanthropy.

At President Lincoln’s Cottage, the knowledge that Abraham Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation here is humbling,  exciting, and central to everything we do. It also adds a great sense of urgency to our fundraising. Without an endowment, the “Cradle of the Emancipation Proclamation” needs sustainable income streams to survive as a public resource.  Visitors must be converted into members and donors.

By speaking to the amygdala, that emotional decision-maker inside the brain, interpreters prepare for a membership pitch by describing the respite the President and First Lady sought here after the death of their son Willie, or the games of checkers Lincoln played with his son, Tad, on the verandah. Sometimes, late in the afternoon, when the lighting is just right, an interpreter will ask visitors to imagine Lincoln reading Shakespeare in the library after commuting home from a long day at the White House. Moments like these can bring tears to visitors’ eyes and build the emotional foundation of a lasting relationship with President Lincoln’s Cottage.

At the conclusion of every tour, the membership pitch is made more overtly. The interpreter points to rack cards and rattles off a list of benefits, including a discount in the Cottage gift shop, preferred rates at Historic Hotels of America, a subscription to the National Trust’s Preservation Magazine, and more. These can be enticing to visitors, but they are usually secondary in power to the emotional connection the interpreter has already made.

Connecting with visitors on an emotional level is not just a fundraising strategy, but an obligation. If we can’t inspire visitors to support our work for reasons beyond tangible member benefits – if we get goosebumps in President Lincoln’s Cottage, but they do not – then we are doing a disservice to Lincoln’s legacy of freedom, justice and equality. Ultimately, our job is to help members understand what they are truly preserving: a special place to pause and consider ideas more eternal than a discount, and bigger than a house.

Here are a few specific suggestions:

  • Weave a membership pitch into every tour or program, subtly at first (“This exhibit/room/project restoration was made possible only through the generosity of our members…”) and directly when possible
  • Use the word “you” frequently during membership pitches to emphasize the impact of individual members
  • Always be proud to ask for their support – not shy –as visitors will perceive that your site is worthy based on your confidence in that fact

What membership strategies have you found to be most effective?