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What’s your view on using ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ messages for fundraising? Three fundraisers provide their perspectives.


using ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ messages for fundraising

To form personal connections with donors, charities need to tell credible stories with conviction. However, in a competitive market it’s easy to turn to ‘guilt and shame’ messages that stand out. Here Anthea Iva, The Director of Redstone Marketing, asks three fundraisers for their perspectives.

Paige Gibbs, Executive Manager, RSPCA NSW

When I first came to the RSPCA, the stories we were telling were overwhelmingly harrowing and predominantly about highlighting the suffering of animals. The outcome was donors driven by fear to donate. The ‘if you don’t, who will?’ mentality permeated the ask.

Tales of animals subjected to abhorrent cruelty were sent out to donors several times a year. They were often accompanied with gruesome images that were hard to view… or turn away from. But we didn’t communicate what we did to save the lives of the animals featured in the appeals. Once we started communicating the happy ending as an epilogue to the cruelty case, we saw a lift in donations and engagement.

Occasionally we’ve moved away from cruelty and rescue stories to focus on other aspects of our work. The results are interesting: when we don’t focus on cruelty stories, the financial results drop. We’ve tested appeals dedicated to our services, inspectors, community-based programs and staff – but they never do as well as the ‘animal in distress’ stories.

So the formula we tend to stick to is stories of cruelty that transform into tales of hope and redemption. We start with the problem – most often a cruelty or rescue case – and take the supporter on a journey from the problem to a solution that is only achieved because of the action they took.

We always follow through with an update of the animal’s progress post appeal so our donors are informed, at every step, of the difference their donations make.

Making the ask urgent is Fundraising 101, but does it mean we need to guilt people into action? I believe it is better to enrol than to guilt. To take the donor to the action by means of a compelling case for support that places them at the centre of the story is vital. This doesn’t mean you must guilt them into acting but, rather, you paint a picture of how bad things could get if they don’t. This might be a subtle shift in attitude from guilt to encouragement but we believe donors have a right to know the truth of how bad it is out there. Equally, they must know that their donations have transformational powers.

An example of this is a recent appeal about a dog trapped in a suitcase. I wrote it in the first person (‘first dog’, actually!). This placed the donor right there in the suitcase experiencing what Harvey, the pup, was feeling. At no point was the language written to guilt the donor into action but it was deliberately experiential and designed to take the donor from despair to hope – just like Harvey. To get it right, we believe in telling a compelling story in a way that focuses on how a donor can transform a life rather than simply fund the cause because we asked… again.

Ben Holgate, Director – Marketing & Fundraising, Plan International Australia

While preparing for November’s nonprofit storytelling conference in the US, I had been reflecting on the role of negative emotions in telling great fundraising stories. And, in particular, whether certain emotions should have no role? Fundraisers are often accused of trying to arouse feelings of guilt or shame to prompt donations. Do these feelings have a role in telling our stories or should they, as some believe, be ruthlessly expunged from our narratives?

Great stories have a clear arc, based on setting up an emotional tension in the reader’s mind and then resolving it satisfactorily at the end. By placing an empathetic central character into a situation of risk, the storyteller must provoke a powerful emotional response in the reader if the story is to be compelling. Almost inevitably, the emotions that come into play here are negative ones – of which the strongest are terror, grief, loathing and rage, according to Professor Robert Plutchik’s psycho-evolutionary theory of emotion. The stronger the emotion and the greater the reader’s empathy with the central character, the more compelling the story becomes.

For fundraisers, this means the more likely the reader is to act and therefore give. In fact, the prompt of an emotionally satisfactory resolution will be greater if the negative emotions initially aroused were stronger.

So, negative emotions are essential to good storytelling. But are guilt and shame actual emotions and, if they are, do they have a role? Defining emotions is notoriously challenging and experts are still debating it. Some psychologists suggest that guilt and shame are feelings triggered by core emotions, but only in a learned context and are therefore not actually considered pure emotions themselves.

Plutchik’s ‘wheel of emotions’ maps emotions by themes of graduating intensity and in diametric opposition to one to another. For example, grief, sadness and pensiveness are offset by ecstasy, joy and serenity. Guilt and shame are not characterised as emotions in Plutchiks’s model, but they are surely related to the segments of the wheel relating to grief, sadness and anger, and associated with remorse and disapproval? In consciously arousing deeper emotions, guilt and shame may be an inevitable by-product, especially in a reader who is not themselves facing an existential threat.

Fundraisers must not shy away from negative emotions but should tell compelling stories in a powerful narrative arc, using a spectrum of nuanced emotions and providing a satisfying resolution in which the donor has a transformative role. If guilt and shame emerge as a by-product we should not be oversensitive to this, but always ask if it adds to or subtracts from the power of our story.

Nicole Brasz, Director Marketing & Digital Transformation, Save the Children

A proven formula in the past does not equate to success in the future. At Save the Children our goal is to create compelling stories that inspire action and loyalty; that connect our supporters to our cause in a way that builds lifetime value far beyond the moment of acquisition. That’s no easy task, but get it right and I believe you will stand out far more than by using a more traditional approach.

Why? Sure we operate in an incredibly crowded space with more than 50,000 charities competing for their share of the dollar but it’s more than that. The digital revolution has transformed our lives and therefore the ways in which
our supporters expect to interact with us.

They have more control and choice than ever before with limited, if any, switching costs. They’re on smart devices more than 10 hours per day and exposed to more than 5,000 brands. And the bar is set by the likes of Airbnb, Uber and Amazon, not our peers, for the most part. That means we need to evolve – and quickly – in order to stand out. We need a distinctive proposition and a good understanding of who our audiences are so we can tell the stories they want to hear, how and when they want them. We need to immerse ourselves, rather than intrude, in their everyday ‘micro moments’ and the way to do that, I believe, is to inform and inspire through storytelling. The implications of that are huge!

It means we need to create a customer centric culture, develop new capabilities such as publishing and embrace new technologies such as virtual reality. It means we need to invest in a strong ecosystem that delivers rich customer insights and mass customisation.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, you may be saying! There’s a time and place for guilt and shame. The marketer in me says no, but the fundraiser is inclined to leave the door ajar a little. When you’ve got 60 seconds to tell your story on TV or on the street, you have to go for the jugular, but even then I would argue for urgency and need over guilt and shame. Clearly, this is a change that’s not going to happen overnight but we know where we want to go and why and we celebrate every win along the way, such as in our Australian-produced Change the Story for Mothers Everywhere video and UK Save the Children’s Most Shocking Second a Day video. It’s not easy but we’re learning and our donors are responding.

Click here to read Derek Humphries’ article Reframing the imagery debate about the use of negative and positive images.


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