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Beyond emotional appeals

A friend sent me an article yesterday: 9 words that tap into the psychology of giving.

Offered as advice to nonprofits on how they can induce a higher rate of giving, the essential thrust was that organizations should connect with their donors. To do this, the article suggested, certain adjectives should be mixed into the message.

For example, the author, Liz Chung, cites an expert's suggestion that the words kind, caring, compassionate, helpful, friendly, fair, hard-working, generous and honest are adjectives that Americans use to describe a moral person. The key here is the supposition that these describe the way most donors, particularly women, would like to see themselves — so appealing to them on this basis should make them more likely to give and to give more. For men, meanwhile, the recommendation was to use words such as strong, responsible and loyal.

In many ways, this is a basic marketing technique used by commercial advertisers to promote their products in a setting intended to appeal to the values and self-image of their targeted demographic. Whether the hint of luxury and the good life, the warm bonds of family or the edgy vibe of being in on the newest thing, all successful advertisers employ this fundamental strategy to get our attention, hold us through their message and make us feel good about the product, and try to foster a connection between what they're selling and our ideal image of ourselves. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, and there is no real reason why nonprofits shouldn't employ it.

There is, however, a catch.

Nonprofit appeals generally operate upon either an emotional or intellectual basis. Aside from appeals to the donor's self-image, among the most powerful emotional draws are sympathy and empathy, guilt, gratitude, a sense of obligation, a positive connection and commitment to the goals of an organization, outrage or anger, and a sense of justice. Among the intellectual appeals are solid proof of a need, a valid connection to a broader set of values and evidence of performance.

For most of us, the former are far more common and work with far greater immediacy. Analyzing evidence of organizational performance (assuming one can find it) takes time.

Consider the perspective of the nonprofit seeking our investment in what it's doing. Rather than basing an appeal upon data that might be misinterpreted or glossed over, it is far more expedient to describe or show us images of a problem — flood survivors, Chihuahuas with adenoid issues or the famously endangered Yaw-Yaw tree — and rely upon our emotions to do the rest. The article my friend sent me merely suggested adding flattery to the arsenal of tools a nonprofit might use, sort of like sprinkling a dash of magic dust on top to give the request just an added bit of appeal.

Now, I want to restate: there is nothing wrong with a nonprofit making its appeal as appealing as it can —and maybe appealing to a donor's self-image isn't entirely a bad thing.

But our sector already has far too many emotionally based appeals. We get them in our email and as pop-ups on our phones and tablets. They arrive in the front porch mailbox and litter our Facebook pages. We see them on television. They're on billboards, on the sides of buses and now on the shopping carts we push through the grocery store. What we sadly don't have, however, is a regular stream of performance evidence to match those emotional appeals.

Most donors want to feel good about their investments in chosen nonprofits — and that's why emotional appeals work. They make us feel good about the fact that we're doing something, putting our money where our mouths (and hearts) are.

But if the sector really wanted to see an increase in support, wouldn't it also make sense to show to the donor community that — aside from being on the side of the angels and being busy — our organizations are making a real, measurable and sustainable difference in the lives of those we exist to serve?

For more from Robert Penna, visit the Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox.

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