Rocky Balboa or William Wallace?

Two movies I absolutely love: Rocky (the whole saga, really) and Braveheart. Both feature exceptional stories and two amazing characters. On the surface, you might think that these movies share a lot of similarities. Both are inspirational stories. Both feature a main character that endures amazing punishment, suffering, and self-sacrifice to accomplish an amazing goal. But if you analyze what motivates each man, you find two very different stories.

Rocky Balboa is motivated by fear.

In the original Rocky movie, we see a big, strong, rough, tough scrapper constantly fighting his immeasurably small self-esteem. Rocky’s deepest fear was that people would think he was a bum—a nobody. Towards the end of the movie, right before his legendary fight with Apollo Creed, Rocky confesses to Adrian, “When that bell rings—and I’m still standing—then I’ll know that I’m not a bum.”

The very last movie in the Rocky saga, Rocky Balboa, captures the essence of the Rocky credo. In a scene where Rocky is visiting the grave site of his beloved Adrian, he confronts his son, now a grown man, about his own self-esteem issues:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! Now if you know what you're worth then go out and get what you're worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain't where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain't you!”

Fear is a very powerful motivator. In fact, there are cases where people in very frightful situations were able to accomplish amazing, even superhuman feats. But most of the time fear is a very self-centered motivator. In the case of Rocky, his fear of failure stemmed from his weak self esteem and placing all of his self-worth on how others viewed him. We watch the movie and are inspired by the amazing iron-clad will that got him to continually endure unbelievable punishment and continue to move forward, but ultimately, it was self-centered motives that drove Rocky. He wasn’t fighting for his country, his family, or even a belief he held—he was fighting for himself.

Contrast that with the story of William Wallace.

William Wallace was motivated by a belief.
The movie Braveheart depicts the story of William Wallace, a Scottish patriot that paved the way for Scotland’s independence. In the film, we see another remarkable story of inspiration. In the face of great adversity, outnumbered and outmatched, William Wallace led an army of peasant farmers against the legions of highly trained British troops in an effort to win Scotland’s freedom from tyrannical rule (sounds remarkably familiar, huh).

Here we see a leader that was motivated by what he believed. His belief was in a free and independent Scotland. This belief was something that transcended himself and spilled over into the hearts of the battered and oppressed Scottish peasant class. There is a scene very early in the movie after William Wallace’s father was killed by the English where William dreams that he sees his father and he gives him this very short, but unforgettable pep-talk, “William. Your heart is free. Have the courage to follow it.”

Follow it he did. And in the process he inspired men to do amazing things. In one famous battle scene, the Scottish militia has gone out to meet the English on the battlefield. Typically, Scotland’s nobles would negotiate a deal and then lead their army away. But it is at this moment that William Wallace delivers one of his most inspirational soliloquies:

“I am William Wallace! And I see a whole army of my countrymen, here in defiance of tyranny. You've come to fight as free men... and free men you are. What will you do with that freedom? Will you fight?”

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!”

Later in the movie, after his father betrays William Wallace, Robert the Bruce a leading contender for Scotland’s crown confronts the elder Bruce:

“Men fight for me because if they do not, I throw them off my land and I starve their wives and their children. Those men who bled the ground red at Falkirk, they fought for William Wallace, and he fights for something that I never had… I don't wanna lose heart. I wanna believe as he does.”

When it comes to our fundraising messages, we have a choice.

Fundraising is no different. We can either motivate our donors to give out of fear or out of a shared belief. The former usually leads to churning and attrition, while the latter leads to lasting relationships. So, how do you communicate with your donors? Are you inspiring them with a vision that is based in a shared belief, or do you tap into their deepest fears? Are you Rocky Balboa, or William Wallace?


Look, Smile, Thank

I was driving from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando and stopped over at a service plaza to grab a quick dinner. The restaurant was a cafeteria-style Italian restaurant where you were issued a still-damp red plastic tray and had to navigate the different “Tastes of Italy” to assemble your own personal dinner courses. As I was checking out, my eye happened to catch a small message taped to the top of the clerks computer monitor.

In case you can’t read it, the message says:

Look at the Customer.
Smile at the Customer.
Thank the Customer.

As you can tell, I only dine at the finest restaurants.

At first I scoffed at this tiny employee manual cheat sheet. ‘Do people really need to be instructed in how to be kind and courteous?’

But as I thought about it more, I realized that this tiny treatise contains the essentials of a donor or customer retention program. Let me break it down:

  1. Look at the Customer. Too often we communicate with our donors with our heads down. We break into our well-rehearsed ask and don’t make much of an effort to make our message relevant to the person to whom it is intended to reach. If we took a good look at our donors, we may discover that what motivates them to support our cause is vastly different from what we think motivates them. This is why donor research and data analytics is so very important. In order to engage our donors in a conversation, we must understand what motivates and drives them to take action.

  2. Smile at the Customer. If we are doing noble work (and I would reason that everyone reading this is indeed doing noble work), shouldn’t we be more joyful? Shouldn’t our messages to our donors reflect that joyfulness? Too often we shroud our fundraising messages in doom-and-gloom, if-you-don’t-give-now-then-bad-things-are-going-to-happen type rhetoric. Why? We should be asking for support with a smile on our face because we know that the work that we are doing is worth it, that the difference that we can make is real, and that the support that we receive connects our organization to our donors. We need to tell people the exciting things that are happening. We need to tell them what their donation is accomplishing. We need to engage cheerful givers.

  3. Thank the Customer. If there is one thing that most nonprofits do a poor job at, it is thanking donors. Too often, we become so acquisition-focused that we neglect the big gaping hole we have in our current donor file. Most of the attrition that nonprofits experience is because donors a) don’t feel that their donation is making an impact; b) don’t feel connected to the organization; and c) don’t think that their donation will be missed. By simply thanking our donors we can overcome two of these main causes of donor attrition and make our donors feel more appreciated.

So maybe we can all take a lesson from the Italian buffet place and tape a little reminder to our computer screens:

Look at the Donor.
Smile at the Donor.
Thank the Donor.