Do Negativity and Alarm Really Raise Funds?

Does positive or negative messaging raise more funds?

A reader writes:

“My inbox and mailbox are flooded with fundraising appeals from causes using the words ‘terrifying,’ ‘alarming,’ ‘emergency,’ etc. 

“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


Dear John, 

This is a top-of-mind question for many fundraising professionals.

Fundraisers use danger messages because marketing data often (not always) shows they’re highly effective when compared with good news messages. 

I have struggled with this throughout my fundraising career. I have 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. 


Inside the Science

Sadly, our brains are wired to respond to negative messages. Here’s what behavioral science tells us about negative vs. positive messages.

NEGATIVE: Negative events have a greater impact on our brains than positive ones. Psychologists refer to this as the negative bias, and it can have a powerful effect on your behavior, your decisions, and even your giving. 

It is the “bad things” that get our attention, stay in our memories, and influence our giving decisions.

Worse, studies show negative news is more likely to be perceived as truthful. Since negative information draws greater attention, it also may be seen as having greater validity. This might be why bad news seems to garner more attention. 

POSITIVE: Thankfully, the data also provides some rays of hope for optimists. Other studies show that use of positive empathy (a happy face) encourages certain donors because either they see the result of their generosity, or they want to maintain the joyful mood portrayed in such an image. 

One important study shows that a positive picture of a child leads to a higher average gift donation than a negative one. 

Research published in 2014 found that public perception of international aid agencies was becoming increasingly negative, and that marketing overkill was part of the reason. This study found that members of the public say they resent “excessively traumatic” campaigns, complaining that “all they want is our money.”


The Truth 

So, what’s a fundraiser to do?

The truth is that fundraisers must sort out when and how to use positive, negative, or a blend of both. 

All three approaches can connect the charity with its donors by triggering an emotional reaction that acts as a motivator for them to give. All three approaches communicate the same story to the audience, but the tone or language used changes how the nonprofit connects or attracts the audience.

Many nonprofits use a hybrid of both positive (happy images) and negative (sad images) in their fundraising and marketing communications.

Here are two questions that can help guide your decision making about the tone of your messages:

1. What’s your time frame and goal? 

Is your need for the revenue short term? If so, negative images can be effective in showing urgent need. These images are especially useful in the face of 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, you should consider a more positive approach that focuses on impact and lives changed. These uplifting stories burnish your brand and are more effective longer term. Telling a story about a donor that other donors can relate to is especially good. 

2. Are you matching your design and images with your message?

It’s important to 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, thus 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. 

Customized appeals always raise more revenue. It’s my experience that repeat donors 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, you’ll be solicited a lot, and your name will be on many different nonprofit marketing lists. 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.

We welcome your input and comments below.

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