Why you can’t leave the emotions out of fundraising

Is it unethical to use knowledge of human psychology to be more effective at influencing their behavior? Is it a type of trickery or manipulation?

In theory, we could cross the line to manipulation. And we shouldn’t. But “using emotion” isn’t mind control. It’s merely encouraging people to do what they intend to do anyway.

But here’s another reason you should feel free to fully use our understanding of the way the brain, the eyes, the limbic system — all the things that make humans human.

We are integrated systems. There’s not a rational side that’s separate from the emotional, subconscious, hormonal parts of us. Appealing to one while bypassing the others is not possible.

If you think you’re going to be “non-manipulative” and only apply to the rational side of your audience, you’ll still end up communicating on deep psychological levels. You’ll just be doing an inept job of it. The subconscious emotional message you think you’re omitting will still be there; it just won’t be working with the rational messaging.

While you’re earnestly trying to persuade people to give, you’ll be signaling something like:

  • You don’t matter very much.
  • This problem is way too big for you to tackle.
  • This issue is not very important.
  • We’re only pretending to like you.
  • You’re way less educated than we are.

And the unconscious part of your message will be much louder and more persuasive than the part you’re so carefully focusing on.

You can’t make the unconscious part of your message go away. Something will fill those slots. Wouldn’t you prefer to fill them with the message you want to send?

Asking if unconscious communication is unfair is a meaningless question. The real questions are Am I doing it right? and Am I telling the truth?

(This post first appeared January 25, 2012.)


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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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About the blogger

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.