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4 Myths About Emotions in Fundraising

6 min read
April 06, 2022
Asha Curran & Woodrow Rosenbaum headshot
Asha Curran & Woodrow Rosenbaum
emotions in fundraising

We’re excited to bring you the third of our six guest insights from Neon One’s industry report on the future of individual giving. Asha Curran and Woodrow Rosenbaum of GivingTuesday look at how the social sector historically has resisted the idea that emotions play an important role in fundraising.

Asha Curran is CEO of GivingTuesday, and co-founder of the global generosity movement. She was formerly Chief Innovation Officer and director of the Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact at 92nd Street Y, where GivingTuesday was founded. 

As Chief Data Officer for GivingTuesday, Woodrow Rosenbaum has been instrumental in shaping the global generosity movement and has led groundbreaking research and analysis of individual giving behaviors. He leads the GivingTuesday Data Commons, bringing together a coalition of collaborators and data teams to understand the drivers and impacts of generosity to inspire more giving of all types. 

In a recent meeting of influential social sector leaders, a discussion centered on the role of emotions in giving as “a problem to be solved.” On another Zoom call, the conversation again focused on why it’s a problem that “people care about what they give to.” If people are inflamed by their emotions, the thinking goes, they won’t make clear, rational decisions — as if rational has a clear, objective definition when it comes to giving. 

For many fundraisers and wealthy philanthropists, data-driven giving is presented as the gold standard. Those who hold this view insist that giving should be based on quantifiable and objective evidence, such as social return on investment. This also gives rise to the idea that fundraisers, in turn, should adopt business principles focused on efficiency and effectiveness, and encourage donors to make more calculated decisions based on those same principles. 

None of this is based on the reality of why people give. The evidence is weak at best that shifting giving away from its emotional root will unlock more giving. In fact, it could actually depress and discourage people from giving more. 

Much has been written about the neuroscience of decision-making and the ways emotions fuel our actions and influence how we give. Analysis from Sector3 Insights indicates that most charities are not leveraging the most important drivers for giving, including a sense of urgency to act now and a personal and emotional connection to the cause.

So why after countless studies, books, and thoroughly researched evidence to the contrary do so many fundraisers still resist embracing the emotional factors that move people to give? The answer is likely rooted in our own relationship with emotions as a society and our view of giving as transactional. Here are four myths that might also be perpetuating this debate: 

Myth #1: It’s not business-like to rely on feelings. 

Companies leverage feelings to inspire interest in their products, build brand loyalty, and drive purchases. So, the idea that staying away from feelings reflects a more business-like approach doesn’t hold up. As in the business world, research shows that a personal, emotional connection is important for triggering donation intent and that the type of emotion that is inspired makes a big difference. Tapping into feelings of urgency and emotional and personal connections have been shown to trigger a greater response. 

Myth #2: We can’t connect emotional storytelling to hard data about a program’s effectiveness. 

Impact and emotional storytelling are not mutually exclusive — they are directly related. While the business world has to manufacture the emotional impact of its products and services, it’s inherent in the experience of giving. Rather than thinking about them as independent functions, nonprofit communications staff should mine the data on program results for motivational and emotionally engaging stories about the impact of their programs on real people.  

Myth #3: Giving is a scarce resource that must be guarded or hoarded. 

The fear that emotion-driven giving will supplant giving to what some deem to be more effective programs is shortsighted. Giving is generative. It inspires more giving. Donor data show that the more people give, the more thoughtful about their giving they become. 

For example, we’ve seen how the annual GivingTuesday event, supported by our organization, motivates giving to all kinds of organizations and generates a spike in online research activity by donors. For those who want to increase intentional giving, simply encouraging more giving is likely the best strategy. Attempting to suppress or shift some motivations for giving to others could actually reduce donations overall. 

Myth #4: Emotions are messy and unpredictable.  

While this often feels true, we actually know quite a bit about predicting behavior and emotional response. It may seem that emotions can wreak havoc with our plans and our ability to project and measure fundraising campaigns, but by working with, instead of against, emotions and human nature, we can measure and in many cases even predict, donor response.  Research shows, for instance, that fundraising appeals that focus exclusively on a nonprofit’s mission and data about its success are likely to miss the mark if they don’t include stories that create emotional connections with donors and a sense of urgency to act now. 

Whatever may be the source of this ongoing grappling with feelings in the fundraising world, it’s a mistake to dismiss emotion-driven decision-making as unintelligent or thoughtless. Our emotional selves are the core of who we are and drive the bulk of our decisions and our work in concert with our more calculated decision-making abilities. 

Let’s embrace the joy of generosity and giving back in our campaigns and outreach to members of our communities. Giving in itself is an expression of emotion. When we measured social media conversation around #GivingTuesdayNow as the pandemic emerged, the messages focused on terms such as “community,” “unity,” and “togetherness.” 

By celebrating, not diminishing, the emotional nature of giving, we acknowledge the special power of generosity. By centering our conversations about giving around our shared humanity, we help ensure giving is not a separate act to be crossed off task lists like filing taxes or paying bills, but rather a fully embedded ritual that is practiced each and every day. Placing value judgments on emotion-driven giving is exclusionary and only turns people away from engaging fully in the world of giving.

Philanthropy literally means “love of humanity.” It’s a concept found at the root of every religion and moral philosophy. Generosity is a value, like love. It is intertwined with other deeply held values that comprise who we are and how we approach the world, our work, and our communities. Numbers can tell us a piece of the story, but numbers alone won’t inspire us to give more. 

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Donors Report Tablet View

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