Mosaic compatriot David Svet and I created a webinar for the Fundraising with Social Media series on how to use Pinterest to advance your organization. While we were building this session we batted around many wonderful questions and held several engaging online discussions. During a discussion amongst nonprofit development and marketing staff, one person’s position caught my attention. It’s a question related to the ethics of using emotions in fundraising.

He was concerned about how nonprofits created a sense of urgency around their fundraising efforts and whether that urgency (which he cautioned was an ethically questionable result of nonprofits engaging donors’ emotions) was in the best interests of a cause’s supporters. He questioned whether a sense of urgency and emotional involvement would impair a supporter’s decision-making process and alter their evaluation of the importance and timing of their involvement with a cause.

Emotions in FundraisingAdvertising and marketing research has produced a wealth of information about how we communicate, the psychology of our messages, how we interpret and receive information, and how we make decisions. More recently researchers have bent their attention on the psychology of philanthropy – how our brains work, what information we receive and process, and what motivates response.

We know that our decision-making process is an emotional one followed by rational reinforcement.

This doesn’t just happen when we consider our philanthropic endeavors but also our daily decisions: what clothes to wear, what we eat, what we buy, who we talk to. Yep, your choice of breakfast cereal this morning started from an emotional response so fast, you wouldn’t even register it.

So, if we know that our communications and decisions are inextricably tied into our emotions, are we acting in the best interests of our causes if we deliberately ignore research, best communications practices, and limit our ability to connect and get our message through?

The organizations we support and believe in are in competition with every advertising message, every need for our time, every entertainment option, and every other priority we each have.

If we examine why the Kony 2012 video campaign reached so many people so quickly it was because it adhered to fundraising communications best practices. There was a leader who was personally invested in the cause who told a personal story about something that was important to him. There was an “identifiable victim,” an individual whose face, name, and personal story we got to know showed us that we can have an affect. And there was a clear call to action in a defined timeframe that was easy for the prospect to execute.

These are best practices because they not only work in the video format reaching mass audiences that the Kony 2012 effort used, but because they work one-on-one, at events, through direct mail, and in funding proposals.  They consistently work in any appeal format.

Emotions in FundraisingWhile decoding the ingredients for success that made up the Kony 2012 campaign we asked what would happen if we could distill the elements of success into a format that you could use across all of your social media channels. If you had the specific roadmap that let you be certain that each of your social media posts was working for optimal fundraising impact, what could you accomplish?

We thought you would make incredible progress supporting your cause through your social media efforts. So we packaged up the information into the first session in the Fundraising with Social Media webinar series. And you can get this session for free! Just sign up here to receive your invitation to this session and more great fundraising with social media information.

Now, let’s consider the question whether it is in our donor’s best interests if their cause uses an emotional appeal when fundraising. Supporters are invested in the success of their causes. They believe their involvement will make a difference. They want to help and do not want to see the effort fail. We as cause leaders, volunteers, staff members, service providers, fundraisers, consultants and yes, donors, work to help each other connect and support something in which we personally believe; in which we are personally invested.

Fundraising is an essential process that allows for an organization to deliver on its mission. Is it in our donor’s best interests to be less than the best we can be when fundraising? When fundraising results mean the difference between lives saved or lost, opportunities extended or overlooked, beauty and potential developed or wasted, are we acting in our donor’s best interests if we accept less than best practices in the pursuit of our missions?

Every tool, every process, has the potential to be used unethically; to be put to bad use. Perhaps the ethical question doesn’t lie within the existence of the tool itself.  Perhaps the best way to value and do justice to our donors is to zealously pursue the success of our missions, to follow through and do what we say we are going to do with our donors’ investments, and honor their intentions.

What do you think about using emotions in fundraising?

Neuron photo by wellcome images Copyright All rights reserved

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6 comments
Rachael Paulson
Rachael Paulson

Thank you for posting this article. My nonprofit organization has very firm rules on this matter. We work in orphan villages to bring water to children who crink from mud holes. I have amazing photo's to show this as true. For interns and volunteers who sometimes travel with me, they have very firm rules that they are not to use the cause and the emotional manipulation to raise funds for the expenses of their trips. It is very easy for people to cross the line in this area. It is up to the director or founder to set firm rules. I have seen this happen so many times, especially when a natural disaster takes place and nonprofits suddenly step up to use that cause to gain over all funds for their nonprofit organization. The best advice I can give on this is to lay down your rules on how the fundraising is presented. For me, exposing the children in my villages, using their photos and speaking about them, must be connected to the cause and if it is not it should be said aloud that it is an overall benifit for the nonprofit and not for water wells. Honesty is number one as far as I am concerned. People will support you anyway if your passion is clear. You do not need to play on people's emotions if you are a person of intention.

Heidi Hancock
Heidi Hancock

It's interesting to see how we re-frame the issue. "Engaging emotion" and "manipulation" can be very different. "Sense of urgency" and "emergency" can be opposite ends of the spectrum. The common ground seems to be that truthfulness, honesty and sincerity are guiding principles that can reduce ethical transgressions. We do live in exciting times and watching the evolution of how our changing technologies affect our communications across cultural divides creates fascinating questions.

Michael J. Rosen, CFRE
Michael J. Rosen, CFRE

In every aspect of our lives, we communicate with a mix of logic and emotion. We're not Vulcans! We're humans. We have emotions. Emotions are not bad. As long as a nonprofit communicates honestly, in good taste, and does not cross the line into manipulation, I don't see an ethics problem. Nonprofits that practice donor-centered fundraising inspire donors to give by understanding what motivates the donor and by matching the organization's needs to the donor's philanthropic aspirations using appropriate, effective communication. On the other hand, manipulation is the "art" of using insidious and sometimes unfair means to serve one’s own purposes. This is antithetical to donor-centered marketing. Ethically run nonprofit organizations do not rely on manipulation to trick people into doing something that they would not normally be inclined to do. It's not always clear when the line is crossed. That's why organizations need to be very careful when crafting their communications. And, whenever faced with an ethical dilemma, organizations should use a deliberative process that examines all possible alternative courses of action. Here's a link to an article about ethical decision making, a model for doing it and why it's valuable: http://mlinnovations.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/Ethical_Decision_Making_Article.28164930.pdf

Harold Gardner
Harold Gardner

Every sales guy knows that emotion plays a large part in every deal. It makes no difference if the deal is for a profit or for a cause. On the other hand, the emotion needs to be honest and reasonable if it is to be sustainable. Manipulative efforts eventually fail. Ethics may be an important reason to avoid misusing emotion, but the ultimate driver will be results.

Barry Gumm
Barry Gumm

Its not Tricks, it just good sales marketing ! AND why not ? Get attacked everywhere else with sales tricks even in the supermarket just for food. Logic unlocks the Mind - Emotions unlock the Cheque Book, and why not get emotional about doing some Good in the World.

Heidi Hancock
Heidi Hancock

Thanks for the article on ethical deliberations! Bringing awareness to the process is valuable!