Published on February 5, 2014 by

The No. 1 blunder when using emotion in fundraising

Most fundraisers  understand that using emotions in copy is a good thing.

But with this knowledge comes poor attempts to integrate emotion into fundraising appeals. I could give you a list of mistakes charities make when trying to use emotion.

But most of them stem from one single issue. It's this...

Trying to evoke emotions you want the donor to have... rather than tapping into emotions the donor already has.

Often a charity will talk about how they want the reader to feel after reading an appeal. But that’s backwards.

Because you may end up trying to change how a reader feels. That’s much harder than tapping into emotions readers already feel.

The feelings you think the donor should have

Let’s say your cause is mental illness. An upcoming appeal must be written. The fundraising manager and the writer sit down to plan it. They come up with a list of emotions they want donors to feel after reading their appeal pack. It may look like this:

  • Empathy with those who suffer depression
  • Excited about lifting people out of depression
  • Inspired by the organisation’s work.

The writer then goes away and drafts a letter. It’s filled with facts and figures about the charity’s work.

Because he knows letters need emotion, he plonks in a story about a beneficiary. This is the attempt to elicit “empathy”.

He’ll also try to make the writing sound emotional. He uses words like “innovative” or “exciting” to describe their programs.

But there’s nothing in it about donors or their feelings.

The feelings donors actually have

Let’s take a look at this from the donor’s perspective. Here are four questions to ask yourself:

  1. How does the donor feel about your cause?
  2. How does the donor feel about your charity?
  3. What feelings may the donor share with your beneficiaries?
  4. What other feelings may they have that could interfere with their giving decision?

Possible answers:

  1. The donor feels connected to your cause. Because someone close to them has a mental illness.
  2. The donor feels apathetic towards your charity compared with a much larger, high profile organisation that does similar work. You know your donors give to both charities.
  3. The donor has her own life problems and responsibilities. They cause her anxiety because she feels she's not coping. She feels stress about work and family. She feels loneliness, even though she has many friends.
  4. The donor feels hopelessness because depression seems like an unsolvable problem.

You can probably think of many more. And if you know your donors well, you’ll be more accurate.

How do things change when you look at what donors actually feel now? Well, you can write a letter that helps donors feel the anxiety and loneliness of the beneficiaries.

You can explain how their gift will be used. You can show them that even people with chronic depression can experience relief. That should address the hopelessness.

Notice you can’t do this if you only consider how you want your donors to feel.

It’s funny though. If you effectively use what donors already feel, then they often will feel how you want them to feel! Empathy with your beneficiaries. Inspired to help.

What's easier? To move a donor from "I am busy right now, don't bother me" to "I am excited about giving".

Or to move a donor from "I am busy right now, don't bother me" to "... but I feel lonely and anxious like this person you're helping so I'll read a bit more". Which then becomes "I'm excited about giving to something that makes a difference".

Why do charities do this?

Sometimes, charities just don’t know any better. But once they wise up, they change and raise more money.

But in my experience, I find this occurs when the charity wants to “focus on the positives not the negatives”.

They want to highlight the organisation’s great work. They want to play down the seriousness of their beneficiaries’ problems. Because it's "too negative".

They also feel using emotion in copy somehow amounts to exploiting beneficiaries.

But giving is an emotional decision. So when you don’t consider donors’ feelings… believe me when I say, it will cost you.

That’s also why you end up with silly letters that want donors to get excited about “empowering women”. Instead of  “saving battered women from domestic violence”.

The former evokes lukewarm responses at best and boredom at worst. (Everyone is into “empowerment” these days even if nobody really knows what it means).

The latter immediately triggers a picture of a sobbing woman. She has black eyes and broken ribs. Some donors will be battered women themselves… or know someone who is.

If such a woman’s charity tapped into donors’ actual emotions, they should elicit sympathy for the victim. Also sorrow on behalf of the sobbing woman, anger that bashing women occurs so often… and a burning desire to do something to help.

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