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The Day Mister Rogers Showed Us How to Communicate with Donors

Written by Tyler Wessel

The other day I was walking my dog on a breezy 70 degree day and thought, “It’s a beautiful day…in the neighborhood.” Of course the song stuck in my head and now it’s stuck in your’s.

It got me to thinking about the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that came out last year about Mister Rogers. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a must-watch. It will make a grown man cry.

One particular scene discusses the 1969 Senate Hearing regarding the $20 million public television funding that the government was threatening to cut. Senator John Pastore was leading the charge and it appeared all would be lost. Then Rogers was called to testify. Below are two clips: the first from the documentary setting the scene; the other from the full testimony.

I thought, “This man really understands how to communicate.” Then I realized we can learn a lot from Mister Rogers regarding donor communication. While this was government funding and not a traditional donor, the principles are the same.

He pays attention

Senator Pastore had been in hearings for two days. He was likely exhausted and irritable. Everyone had read long testimonies. Some attacked and used words like “intolerable.” None of this worked. Rogers, however, acknowledges the Senator wouldn’t want to hear another lengthy statement. As was his personality, he had a soft tone and a conversation rather than a lecture.

We need to pay attention to what’s not working in our communications. Donors get bombarded every day from nonprofits. If what we’re trying isn’t working, we need to learn how our donors want to hear from us.

He makes it about why

“I’m very much concerned – as I know you are – about what’s being delivered to our children in this country….I give an expression of care every day to each child to help him realize that he is unique….I feel like that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”

Here is our concern. Here is what we do. Here is what we hope to accomplish.

Rogers does not make it about himself or rattle off a bunch of stats. He discusses the importance of teaching children and helping them deal with real life difficulties.

Simon Sinek states that everything Starts with Why. People don’t buy what you do, but why you do it. Don’t ever let your donors forget why you’re here. Then move on to the how.

He uses real examples

Haircuts. Family matters. Rogers discusses actual program topics. It is easier to understand than talking in general or abstract terms. But he doesn’t list too many. He offers just enough that Pastore asks to see the program to learn more.

Sometimes we feel we need to tell more to justify ourselves to donors. But a few strong examples are often more powerful than a bulleted list in which everything gets diminished.

He shows gratitude

“I’m grateful not only for your goosebumps, but for your interest in our kind of communication.”

Pastore says he wants to view one of the episodes. Rogers thanks him for his interest. Moments earlier he had pulled the Senator into the conversation, stating, “I’m very much concerned – as I know you are…

To paraphrase: “I know you share our concern. Thank you for wanting to learn more.” Such a simple thought can go a long way.

He stirs emotion

Pastore was on the ropes. Over just a few minutes, you can see his heart soften. His tone shifted considerably. It’s remarkable to watch!

Then Rogers hits him again and recites lyrics about how children can manage their anger. “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” These are actual words from one of the very children he serves. Another example of how they are making a difference.

Pastore was nearly speechless. And that was that. $20 million. One man saved public television, which has gone on to educate and serve millions of children for decades since that day.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Did you notice what Mister Rogers never does? He never brings up the $20 million. Of course everyone knew that’s why he was at the hearing. And yes, he discusses previous money, but in referencing how the money helped. That’s called impact. But instead of pleading for money, he shares their purpose, gives examples, stirs emotion, and shows gratitude. He essentially asks Senator Pastor to be part of the family, to be his neighbor. That’s what donor relations is all about.

Tyler Wessel is a multi-award winning creative specialist who helps transform creative projects for donor relations, nonprofits, education, and small businesses. You can reach him at


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