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The How & Why Of Adding Emotion Into Your Fundraising Appeals

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Here’s one little ‘trick’ to vastly improve your fundraising this year. You’re going to think I’m kidding, but I’m not.

I could give you lots of tips and tools to improve your year-end fundraising success (and feel free to grab some here), but if you do nothing else but this ONE thing you’ll be amazed at how much it helps.

It may seem obvious to you, but you’d be surprised how many mail and email fundraising appeals I receive that ignore this fundraising fundamental.

And fundraising appeals without this are just plain (excuse the expression) STUPID.

So… I want you to be smart. I want you to focus.

In the 1992 presidential race, Bill Clinton succeeded by finding ONE thing around which to rally folks. It was the one thing all people cared about. The one thing relevant to everyone’s daily lives. The one thing on which the majority could agree. And out of that one thing came this winning slogan: It’s the Economy, Stupid.

For nonprofits, it’s another ‘E’ word.

Focus on Adding Emotion to Your Fundraising Appeals

Emotion captures attention. Big time.

When we see or hear a baby cry we’re hard-wired to pay attention.

We can’t look away from a cute kitten or puppy.

If something scares us it will command us to be on the alert.

If we’re fearful something we care about may be lost we respond with vigilance.

If we see a bully taking advantage of someone vulnerable, we want to help.

If we imagine ourselves in a terrifying or depressing situation, we respond empathically.

Emotional responses arise naturally – given the right triggers.

Desired Emotional Responses

Think carefully about the emotion you want to elicit in the readers of your fundraising appeal.

Then add something to your fundraising appeals to ensure they feel this way.

We talk a lot in the fundraising and marketing biz about DARs (Desired Action Responses). You want folks to donate. Or volunteer. Or attend an event. Or sign a petition. Or add their name to your mailing list.

We don’t talk enough about DERs (Desired Emotional Responses).

This is important because in order to elicit a passionate donate action response, people must first be moved emotionally.

Not intellectually.


They’ll sign up for a newsletter to get something they want.

They’ll sign a petition to do you a favor.

They’ll attend an event to do a favor for a friend.

They’ll volunteer to feed their own ego, please their boss, commune with their friends, or just give themselves something to do.

But… to reach into their personal pocket and give generously of their hard-earned money requires something that moves them.

It’s not an intellectual exercise.

It’s an emotionally responsive act.

The Challenge of Adding Emotion

People often ask me what to do if they don’t have cute puppies. Or hungry babies. Or people with a terminal illness. You know, things that are inherently emotional.

Or they tell me their prospective donors don’t need emotion. They give because it’s the right thing to do. Or they’re giving back to their alma mater. Or they’re saying thank you for the care given to a loved one. Or they want their public television to survive. Or they just believe in the value you enact, be it justice, freedom, equality, honoring elders, welcoming strangers, or feeding the poor.

These things are all-powerful concepts.

And, sure, there can be some enlightened self-interest involved.

However, standing alone, they won’t compel generous philanthropy.

Maybe you’ll get token gifts.

  • $25 because I went to school there and know ‘annual giving’ provides ‘a margin of excellence.’
  • $36 in honor of my friend who was ‘cared for by your hospice.’
  • $50 because ‘I watch public television regularly and feel obliged’ to do my part.
  • $100 to ‘defend the Constitution.’

You may be content with these gifts. You’ll count up the numbers of donations and the money you raised and feel you ran a successful campaign. But… ‘successful’ is in the eye of the beholder.

From my view, you likely could have raised so much more.

You could have generated passionate, whole-hearted gifts.

But… for those, you need to trigger people emotionally.

Emotional Triggers

The interesting thing about emotional triggers is they tend to make people feel uncomfortable.

Being the reasonable human being you are, you probably shy away from such things. Heck, many so-called fundraisers even shy away from making a specific ask! Why? Uncomfortable.

Here’s a little secret: To be a successful fundraiser you have to get comfortable with a little discomfort.

  • You’d rather talk about happy things.
  • You’d rather share successes, and gloss over failures.
  • You’d rather stay at an intellectual level than dive too deep into scary things that get people in their guts.
  • You’d rather keep your CEO and Board president comfortable with the appeal letter they’re signing.

But there’s another ‘rather’ that argues against all of the above:

You’d rather raise more money for your mission. Wouldn’t you?

For that, you need to awaken feelings that arouse emotions.

Common feelings that work for fundraising purposes are:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Duty
  • Faith
  • Compassion
  • Hope
  • Love

Once these feelings are awakened, they tend to demand a response.

Emotional Responses

Think carefully about what might trigger an emotional response to something you do.

Something concrete and specific, not general and abstract.

It’s the difference between:

  • Please give because justice should be a fundamental human right.
  • Desert Storm veteran Max won’t get the housing stipend, food stamps, and housing to which he’s entitled… unless you help.

It’s the difference between:

  • Please give to support the arts in our community.
  • 16-year-old Kara has seen little beyond the four walls of the housing project she lives in, and will never see a play… unless you help.

It’s the difference between:

  • Healthy young lives start with you. Please give.
  • Jonah will continue to be beaten by his Dad when he gets home from school… unless you care.

It’s the difference between:

  • Please give before the cold winter approaches.
  • Kevin won’t survive the night on the street when temperatures get below freezing – unless you help.

It’s the difference between:

  • Please join our building campaign.
  • Time is running out to buy a brick. Don’t miss out on this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Emotion and Satisfaction

Good fundraising is a value-for-value exchange.

Don’t forget once you’ve triggered emotion and received a DER (Desired Emotional Response) it’s your job to satisfy your donor emotionally. The donor gives you something of value (tangible; money); you give the donor something of value (intangible ‘feel good’; emotional pay-back).

If you don’t close the loop and satisfy your donor emotionally, they’ll feel short-changed.

Donors who feel emotionally short-changed are unlikely to give again. If they do renew their support, they’re unlikely to give passionately.

To ensure you follow through with donors in a meaningful way, be sure to craft your thank you letter at the same time you draft your appeal.

If you wait until later you may not put enough time and thought into this strategy. And, make no bones about it, donor acknowledgment should be strategic! The first thank you is what begins to win your donor’s trust. And trust is the foundation of all meaningful relationships.

Emotion and Retention

Speaking of relationships, don’t forget successful fundraising is a long-term, donor-centered endeavor. 

Acquiring new donors costs, on average, $1.25 to raise $1.00. This is a losing proposition unless you’re able to renew and upgrade these supporters over time. You’re after lifetime value, not single transaction value.

Put in place a donor love and loyalty plan to continue building meaningful relationships with donors throughout the year. 

Donors need this to feel emotionally satisfied.

It doesn’t feel good to donors when the only time they hear from you is when you want money.


Be smart, not stupid.

Focus on emotional triggers.

Make your donor feel something that demands their passionate response.

Eschew dry, egocentric, jargon-filled, abstract generic fundraising appeals in favor of emotional, in-your-face, packed with feeling messages. Help people visualize something that makes them feel uncomfortable… angry… sad… scared…something that makes them want to turn up the dial on hope, compassion, empathy and love.

If you do nothing else different this year, concentrate on adding emotion into your fundraising appeals.

Use visuals to support your prose.

REMINDER: I’m not suggesting you ignore other fundraising fundamentals. Especially those that serve as pre-conditions to your ability to mount an effective campaign (e.g., viable prospects, clean, segmented mailing lists, a well-thought-out, relevant case for support, easy-to-find and use donate buttons and landing pages, etc.). But if you’re stretched to your maximum, at a minimum you can focus – like a laser – on adding emotion to this year’s appeal. The way to the head – and the donor’s wallet – is through the heart. Never forget that.

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  • Charity Link

    A great article that highlights how multifaceted good fundraising needs to be! There really is so much to think about and so much skill involved.
  • Sam Belcher

    Great comments and suggestions. Makes me get out of the "proverbial box" and think in a different way
  • Jason

    Thank you - I really appreciate the examples you provided. For those of us that that don't necessarily specialize in copywriting this is great info!
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