A nonprofit CEO reader writes:
“My inbox and mailbox are flooded with fundraising appeals from causes using the words ‘terrifying,’ ‘alarming,’ ‘emergency.’
“Yes, we’re in deep sh*t on many levels. Why would they think I don’t know this? The messages only make me more depressed, and depression does not motivate me to contribute. Does negativity and alarm really raise funds?”
—John, CEO of a civic education nonprofit
This is a top-of-mind question for many fundraising professionals.
Fundraisers use danger messages because marketing data often—though not always—shows they’re highly effective compared with positive messages.
I have struggled with this throughout my fundraising career. I’ve always been an optimist—believing people are more interested in the solution and the progress forward, than alarm and complaint.
But the data doesn’t always support that view. This is especially true for mass marketing messages and broad fundraising appeals for monumental events like hurricanes or earthquakes.
Science says: We’re wired for negative
Sadly, our brains are wired to respond to negative messages. Here’s what behavioral science tells us about negative vs. positive messages.
Negative events impact our brains more than positive events. Psychologists refer to this as negative bias, and it can have a powerful effect on your behavior, your decisions—even your giving.
Worse, studies show that we’re more likely to perceive negative news as truthful. Since negative information draws greater attention, many may believe it has greater validity. This might be why bad news seems to garner more attention.
Thankfully, the data also provides some rays of hope for optimists. Other studies show that use of positive empathy—like a happy face—encourages donors because they either see the result of their generosity, or they want to experience the joyful mood portrayed in such an image.
One important study shows that a positive image of a child leads to a higher average gift donation than a negative one.
A 2013 article from The Guardian suggests that using negative emotions such as guilt doesn’t lead to long-term giving, but reward emotions such as pride or belonging do, as they enable people to enjoy giving.
In 2018, a study published in the Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, showed that the effectiveness of positive and negative charity appeals in inducing favorable attitudes and actual donations is not straightforward. The study suggests that positive appeals are more effective in inducing favorable attitudes toward the ad and toward the organization, but negative appeals are more effective or at least equally effective in eliciting actual donations.
More recently, a 2022 study published in The Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing showed that ‘shame appeals’ framed as losses are more effective in driving engagement than hope is. The overall findings provide supporting evidence for the interplay between negative emotions and message framing. To achieve higher engagement and trigger behavior change while utilizing budgets effectively, charities would benefit from utilizing loss framed and shame inducing advertising messages.
The truth is relative
So, what’s a fundraiser to do?
The truth is that fundraisers must sort out when and how to message their constituents using positive, negative, or a blend of both.
All three approaches connect the charity with its donors by triggering an emotional reaction that acts as a motivator for them to give. While all three approaches communicate the same story to the audience, the tone or language changes how the nonprofit connects or attracts the audience.
Many nonprofits use a hybrid of both positive and negative images in their fundraising and marketing communications depending on the campaign or specific appeal.
Here are 2 questions to help guide your decision making about the tone of your messages
1. What’s your timeframe and goal?
Do you need revenue short term? If so, using negative images can be an effective way to show urgent need. These images are especially useful for timely situations such as natural disasters, protests against racism, or economic turbulence. These images show donors that an urgent donation is needed right now.
If your needs are longer term, consider a more positive approach that focuses on impact and lives changed. These uplifting stories burnish your brand and are more effective over time. Telling a story about a donor that other donors can relate to is especially effective.
2. Does your design and imagery match your message?
Make sure that the images and design you use with your appeals connect with the stories and messages you’re attempting to convey.
Your images pack a greater emotional punch when they complement your message. This may seem obvious, but about half of the appeal messages I see each month fail to meet this standard. Worse, many appeals lack any impressive graphic design or image, missing a huge opportunity to convince the donor to give.
Customize and segment your donor messages
If the nonprofits in question had surveyed you, John, and all their other donors, they could’ve asked about your preferences and customized their appeal to you. Or, like Feeding America, you can build donor preferences into your website, a smart fix.
Customized appeals always raise more revenue. It’s my experience that repeat and major donors want a positive empathetic message—one that describes the path forward and the impact made. That’s clearly you, John.
Most major donors give to about seven organizations a year, and very thoughtful people like you, John, probably give to two or three times that many.
So, your name will be on many different nonprofit marketing lists, and you’ll be solicited a lot. I would encourage you to triage the nonprofits and charitable causes you’re most interested in and give to them as generously as you can. Take solace and joy in the donations you do make, and how important that is.