Cast of Saved by the Bell - Credit: NBCUniversal via Getty
Cast of Saved by the Bell - Credit: NBCUniversal via Getty

What’s the Big Idea? How Building Your Next Fundraising Appeal on This ONE Thing Will Help You Raise More Money

Hey, hey, Hey, HEY! What is going on here?”

If you grew up watching Saved by the Bell in the early ’90s, you might have just read that with Mr. Belding’s voice. As the principal of Bayside High, Belding’s job was to know what shenanigans Zack, Slater, and Screech were getting into…and fast.

So do your donors!

Let them know what your big idea is within the first couple sentences. The quicker the better, or you’ll risk losing them.

If done well, your crystal clear, compelling message will help you reach your desired audience. Capture their attention, and you’ll inspire action in the form of increased donations to your organization.

What is a Big Idea?

In every episode of Saved by the Bell – or almost any sitcom for that matter – there is a central message that’s summed up in one line.

It might range from “don’t take drugs” (remember Jessie Spano on caffeine pills?) to “cheaters never win” (almost every episode when Zach tries to win Kelly over).

So when Belding says his famous line, “Hey, hey, Hey, HEY, WHAT is going on here?” The next thing the characters do or say will probably reveal the Big Idea of the episode.

The same goes in your fundraising appeals. Think of the Big Idea as the most important takeaway, or the summary statement of your piece.

It’s the thread woven throughout…

Or the glue holding it all together.

Sandy Franks, a premier copywriting coach and leader at AWAI (American Writers and Artists Institute) tells us:

The “Big Idea” is an idea that the reader finds emotionally compelling. It’s “the thing” that gets them excited enough about your [cause] to … make a [donation].

We call it a Big Idea because it has the power to change a person’s attitude, beliefs, and behavior.

The Big Idea touches all parts of your fundraising appeal. So let’s take a look at an example of a successful fundraising campaign with one very Big Idea…

“Likes Don’t Save Lives”

This UNICEF appeal ran in Sweden in 2013 as a way to draw attention to “liking” a cause on social media and the lack of meaningful action that followed.

Yes, social media can be a wonderful tool to raise money. But this campaign pointed out a gap between social media “likes” and subsequent action, such as donating or volunteering.

One of the central messages even stated, “Like us on Facebook, and we will vaccinate zero children against polio.”

WHAT! That’s shocking, and it’s meant to be so. If that line doesn’t send a jolt to every kind-hearted person who sees it, I’m not sure what would.

Text says, "Like us on Facebook, and we will vaccinate zerio children against polio."

By connecting the dots between people’s actions, or lack thereof, UNICEF made a bold statement to inspire more giving.

The campaign raised enough money to vaccinate 637,324 children against polio! Now that’s one great, big, awesome idea.

Choosing Your Big Idea

As you prepare for your next appeal, start here. See if you can distill your message down to…

  • One major benefit.
  • One single emotion.
  • And nudge the reader to take one single action.

If this seems hard, I understand.

Fortunately, you can follow a simple 3-step process to help you articulate your Big Idea. Work through these steps whether you’re just getting started with a new appeal or if you’re sprucing up an existing one.

In order to form your Big Idea, you’ve got to

  1. Reeeeeally know who your target audience is. The more specific, the better. Describe your people: What do they do? What do they like? What’s on their minds?
  2. Focus on the things your audience cares about. Each of us reacts to certain triggers that can immediately snap us out of la-la land and enter a state of hyper-focused attention. Are you talking to parents of small children? Retired folks? College students? Your Big Idea should somehow address the triggers of your audience. 
  3. Don’t beat around the bush – invite action and tell why the reader’s participation matters. Make your reader feel something.

That’s it!


One benefit. One emotion. One action.

People want to help. That’s why they donate. Research shows a bump in how people feel when they support a cause that is meaningful to them.

So offer your donors a way to do just that. Start with a clear picture of what you want your donors to do…

Be specific about what you want your donor to do…

And answer this question in a sentence or less:

“Hey, hey, Hey, HEY, WHAT is going on here?”

If you can answer Mr. Belding’s famous question within the first couple lines of your appeal, you’re in good shape. If not, you should probably rework it.

Or, ask me to help!