Why bad news works in fundraising

I have terrible, awful, unbelievably horrible news.


Did I get your attention?


I think so. You could hardly help but take notice, because your brain is wired to pay more attention to negative information.


If you’ve been in fundraising for a while, you already know that. It’s also a finding in a study by the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London: UCL study: subliminal messaging more effective when negative.


The study looked at people’s ability to process words flashed on a screen too quickly for them to read consciously. Positive words (like cheerful, flower, peace) and neutral words (like box, ear, kettle) were compared to negative words (like agony, despair, murder).


People were more able to accurately recall negative words — even though they didn’t consciously see any words at all. Researchers co concluded:



… there are evolutionary advantages to responding rapidly to emotional information. We can’t wait for our consciousness to kick in if we see someone running towards us with a knife or if we drive under rainy or foggy weather conditions and see a sign warning “danger.”

What does this mean to fundraisers? It just tells us something we already know: People are more responsive to problems and enemies than to happy, fully resolved situations. They grasp what you’re saying more easily and quickly. The impression is deeper. The motivation to respond is stronger.


If your fundraising message is: Everything is great! Please give to keep it that way! You’re swimming upstream against basic human psychology. Instead, make your message: Problem! Help solve it!


Thanks to The Agitator for the tip.


Comments

2 responses to “Why bad news works in fundraising”

  1. I have to differ slightly on this one, because I’m afraid you’re going to get a bunch of fundraisers going with massive doom and gloom in their appeals! I don’t agree big problems work better to motivate giving UNLESS they are portrayed on a scale that seems fixable. Any problem must be positioned as having a realistic solution, and any challenge must be portrayed in a way that makes it seem possible to impact with a donation. Problems need to be on a human scale or we don’t feel as humans we can help. “The earth is melting” is terrible messaging because it is not only negative, it is of a scale that is depressing and paralyzing. I think this distinction is critical for a fundaiser.

  2. I have to differ slightly on this one, because I’m afraid you’re going to get a bunch of fundraisers going with massive doom and gloom in their appeals! I don’t agree big problems work better to motivate giving UNLESS they are portrayed on a scale that seems fixable. Any problem must be positioned as having a realistic solution, and any challenge must be portrayed in a way that makes it seem possible to impact with a donation. Problems need to be on a human scale or we don’t feel as humans we can help. “The earth is melting” is terrible messaging because it is not only negative, it is of a scale that is depressing and paralyzing. I think this distinction is critical for a fundaiser.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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