Feel good or fear? How you can move donors to act

Knowing when fear and good feelings move donors to act is important.

Here in the northern hemisphere, the sun is shining, the weather is warm… it’s summer. My favorite time of year.

That means it’s time to start thinking about your year-end appeal.

I know, it sounds nuts, right? But if you want the chance to catch your breath over the next few months, think about it now. Put yourself in November you’s shoes:

The goal isn’t met. Time is running out. Your appeal urges donors to act right away, or bad things may happen.

Can’t we keep it upbeat? We’re doing so much good!” a board member will ask. “People want to know we’re getting the work done, right?

Well… no, not necessarily.

When the need is urgent, or an important deadline is approaching, sharing the urgency with donors is what will work. Fear can be a powerful trigger. Especially when you want people to act NOW.

(Also, what’s meant by “upbeat” is often “all the things I like about our organization” – that is, organization-focused copy.)

But fear, while powerful, can backfire. So you want to use it carefully.

Think about fear and urgency when writing your appeal

Researchers looking at purchasing habits found that negative messaging was more effective when there was time pressure to buy. Positive messaging worked better when the purchasing decision wasn’t driven by a deadline or scarcity.

So perhaps negative messaging – for instance, “if we don’t raise $250,000 by December 31, our preschool reading program will have to be cut” – might work better. There’s a deadline (urgency) and there’s the fear of loss.

And if your fundraising isn’t urgent, why do you need money?

A consistently negative framework can backfire, though.

Donors need to feel they’re making a difference. If all the messages they receive are negative, they may feel their gifts are in vain. It may be that negative messaging is most effective in attracting donors. But after that, you should be sure they get a more varied diet.

Guilt and absolution

Guilt is often seen as a negative emotion. So fundraisers are often wary about it. There’s a line between calling on someone’s empathy and being manipulative.

We experience guilt for a reason. It’s useful. Guilt is tied to empathy – an emotion we definitely want to encourage in donors.  When we feel guilty about injustice in the world, or about our warm home and full pantry, guilt can move us to do something about it. Acting in a positive way – by making a donation – absolves us of our guilty feelings. At least temporarily.

This is when a happy list of your organization’s accomplishments won’t do the job.

Why not have it both ways?

You’ve probably spotted a pattern here: negative and positive work best together.

I’ve written about emotional triggers before. Balancing emotions can be powerful.

So here’s what I do:

For your appeals, find the urgency. And be aware that fear of loss is more powerful than the desire to gain something. So if that preschool funding will be cut, tell your donors.

But then after people respond with gifts, give them some gifts. Gratitude of course. And information. Don’t leave them hanging there, wondering if their gift did any good. If they can feel better because they helped someone.

That’s the job of a great thank you letter. A welcome for new donors. And moving donor newsletters. They’re the big dose accomplishment to match the fear.

Pair fear with hope for a better outcome. But use each when they’ll do the most good.

Give your donors some control: they have the power to prevent a bad outcome. And when you show them that they did just that, you give them hope for more good news. That’s powerful. That’s how you encourage people to want to keep helping.

Photo by Gregoire Jeanneau on Unsplash