Bad marketing, bad fundraising, or just human nature?

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of articles about ethics in marketing and fundraising, and how perceptions, language and use of images affect rates of giving. Two articles in particular inspired me to write this post; this SOFII one, commissioned for the Commission on Donor Experience’s emotion project; and this NY Times one about why people don’t give to Syrian refugees.

Both articles ask an interesting question: why do we give more to help those affected by natural disasters than those affected by man-made ones?

The SOFII authors identify the difference as an empathy gap: “While donors find it easy to empathise with victims of natural disaster, it is much more difficult for them to empathise with victims of conflict.”

The NY Times author argues that it’s down to bad marketing, stating: “…It’s not entirely your fault you aren’t giving to Syrian refugees. You just haven’t been manipulated properly.”  They then go on to describe the approach taken by Charity: Water, the apparent paragon of all things good in fundraising. (Note: I think Charity: Water are absolutely fantastic, so imagine I’m winking and smiling as you read that last part.)

I’m not going to go into detail on how Charity: Water operates and what’s different about what they do; many others have done this far better already. What I think is especially interesting about these two pieces is that however you think about fundraising or marketing, the inherent difficulty is always the same.


A body at rest tends to remain at rest, as Sir Isaac Newton put it. No matter if you’re selling an item or asking someone to donate to a cause, the natural inclination of human beings is to not do the thing. That’s what we’re all up against.

So how do we tackle this? Well, I happen to agree with both articles. Emotion is how!

Hope inspires, says the NY Times article. Yup, great. That’s true. But where I think the SOFII authors have hit the nail on the head is that we also need to address the more uncomfortable feelings that fundraisers and donors have.

Asking for money is either a noble calling or a dishonourable disgrace, depending on what you read. We try to inspire our donors, make them feel connected to our beneficiaries, bring them into the very centre of what we do. But we also challenge their assumptions, make them rethink their opinions, realise that the issue they thought was simple has complex roots and marked effects. This can be very difficult to do; nobody wants to challenge a potential donor to the extent that they’re completely put off giving! At the same time, donors give to effect change – we need them to feel uncomfortable with the current state of things to motivate making that change. Making clear the world is not the happy, peaceful place we might wish it were in a way that doesn’t shock people just for the sake of it, degrade those in need as less capable or inferior, or perpetuate the ‘donor as saviour’ ideal should be our aim.

Sometimes it’s easier not to. Sometimes, it’s easier to reach for the same language that’s worked before, to reuse what we’ve already done, even if we know it’s going to suffer diminishing returns. That’s inertia again; it’s hard work for fundraisers to keep pushing and refreshing our cases for support!

But we can’t expect to overcome anyone else’s inertia if we don’t address our own. It’s not about bad marketing, or manipulating people in the right way to make them reach into their pockets. It’s recognising where there’s an emotional gap in our messaging and addressing it, whether it’s comfortable or not. And it’s about identifying our own discomfort with what we do, and working to redress that balance too.

Emotionally honest and intelligent fundraising is our goal – and our challenge.









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