Is your charity under-delivering on the most important drivers of donor appeal?

publication date: Dec 6, 2017
author/source: John Hallward

Recently, I donated to a charity that I had never supported before. What prompted me? A friend had solicited my donation, and it felt good to help him achieve his goal. This little experience provides a key insight into fundraising success, and is supported by learning from a recent North American study on charitable behaviour. In this study, conducted by Sector3Insights, I observed several key points that could help non-profits raise more money. I wanted to share these with others in hope it helps to improve fund-raising efforts and to grow overall giving.

This research explored a wide range of drivers of charitable giving. Among the characteristics associated with driving donation behaviour, one of the key insights was the significant importance of emotional and personal connections felt by donors. These characteristics are more important than the rational elements we see so often in charity solicitations and appeals; the ones about the relevance of the cause, trust, operating efficiency and mission impact. The interesting disconnect was that most non-profits are under-delivering on these key emotional drivers of fundraising success, often spending valuable resources reassuring donors on the less important, rational messages.


It is not enough for a charity to have a positive image and to be well regarded. Being efficient, cost-effective, and addressing important social problems is just the price-of-entry. There are tens of thousands of charities doing great things. Furthermore, donors generally appear positively pre-disposed to most charities simply because they are charities and “doing good work”. However, positive image alone does not lead to donation behaviour. Emotions are essential in triggering action, and a key factor in donor retention and loyalty.

When I talk about emotions, I don’t simply mean using babies, puppies, kittens or disaster scenes in charity solicitations. It is not the emotional content within the charity appeal that matters. Instead, the focus should be on the emotions people wish to feel when they decide to make a donation. It is these feelings that drive people to act. Donors do not want to see a sad, emotional message and end up feeling sad. Instead, most donors would likely prefer to feel like heroes, to feel good about themselves or to relieve feelings of guilt.

Most readers will be aware of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow saw human needs as being layered, building on top of each other. At the bottom are the basic physical needs for food and shelter. As we satisfy each level, we work our way up the hierarchy or pyramid. Approaching the top of the pyramid, we start to focus on the higher-order needs, such as self-esteem and self-actualization, needs that are less easy to fulfill. We might spend a lifetime searching for self-actualization.

Due to our high quality of life in North America, most of us have met our basic physical needs. Giving and volunteering offer people an opportunity to fulfill some of Maslow’s higher-level needs. When we decide to support a cause or an organization, it is often because we wish to support our self-esteem, and add value to our lives.

In the for-profit world, brands that leverage emotions earn stronger loyalty. Rational performance characteristics are important elements, but they play a secondary role when it comes to how people expect to feel when making a brand decision. Think of “Just do it” (Nike), “Think different” (Apple), “Because you’re worth it” (L’Oreal) or “Open happiness” (Coke). These brands have worked to leverage strong emotional drivers that consumers want to experience, such as the need to take action, to be unique or to feel happy. The brands are selling to and specifically leveraging the emotions of their consumers rather than communicating product features.

The corporate world has figured this out, but why aren’t more non-profit or charity appeals using these insights? Why do charities so often talk about themselves and rarely focus on the emotional triggers which activate donors? Furthermore, does this learning help explain the success and growth of crowd-funding and peer to peer fundraising techniques? These campaigns tap into the power of relationships and social ties that so often drive the decision to donate to a cause.

It would be helpful for non-profit managers considering their communications, to think less about the charity’s mission, performance and efficacy. Instead, communications should focus on emotional persuasion. Successful fundraisers ignite the emotions in their donors, underline the personal connections, and deliver the sense of self-esteem that drives donors to take action.

Given the importance of the charity appeals and solicitation, it is also a good idea to test communications and messages to make sure they strike the right emotional chords, and avoid the risk of being just another average charity appeal.

About the Author: John Hallward is President of Sector3Insights, a new social enterprise market research firm providing insights for non-profit success. It leverages state-of-the-art research tools used in the corporate world to help guide non-profits in their decisions, strategies and actions.


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