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Main Page / Great Story / Causes worth a million: shall charity workers appeal to negative emotions?

Causes worth a million: shall charity workers appeal to negative emotions?

На мільйон: чи варто благодійникам апелювати до негативних емоцій?

Credit: Depositphotos

A photo with a hungry African boy, a candid video about a sick child from Ukraine… Should charity workers appeal to negative emotions to attract more donors?

This question is hotly debated, but recently researchers have become increasingly confident that addressing negative emotions is generally a losing strategy. Even if we do not take into account the ethical issues with compassionate pictures (such as the consent of the children depicted on them), rational arguments and positive emotions involve people in charity more effectively.

Let’s understand why it happens like this.

Rational arguments (also) work

Charities often depend on the support of small donors – and thus, on their ability to persuade people to donate money or other resources. In the third sector, there is a widespread belief that when you fundraise, you need to address people’s emotions to raise money more effectively.

On one hand, the effectiveness of appealing to emotions is hard to deny. On the other hand, trends in the West suggest that rational arguments can also be effective.

The most famous promoter of this approach in its modern form is the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. He is the spiritual leader of the effective altruists movement that has developed in the United States and other Western countries in recent decades. In fact, the point of effective altruism is about rational approach to charity.

Proponents of this philosophy try to clearly measure where their charitable contributions will be most practical. For instance, it may be more emotionally rewarding for you to donate money to a church in your neighborhood where you know everybody, but your money is much more needed to overcome global epidemics.

The spread of effective altruism indicates that rational arguments in charity can be effective. But their effectiveness is not limited to a specific community of effective altruists. In 2020, a group of American researchers published a study that compares the impact of a rational and emotional approach on the behavior of donors. It proved that rational arguments can be as effective as emotional ones. According to the authors, in their experiment “the effect of philosophical reflections and arguments and emotional appeals was approximately the same.”

According to last year’s Zagoriy Foundation survey among Ukrainians, “Readiness of Ukrainians to make charitable donations has both emotional and rational underpinnings,” and a rational “understanding that the country’s social protection system is not in the best shape” reinforces empathy.

Positive emotions on top of negative ones

For sure, it is difficult to be limited to logical and rational arguments in charity: turning to emotions is still useful. However, when charities play on the emotions of their potential audience, those emotions should be positive.

Evidence suggests that appealing to empathy and pride is more effective than trying to provoke anger and sadness, at least in the long run.

Fundraising psychology researcher Jen Shang, quoted by The Guardian, says that charities should rely on emotions, but using negative emotions, such as guilt, can make a person withdraw and refuse from donating money. Appealing to ideals is a more effective strategy, she believes.

Negative emotions can have a limited effect in the short term, but are a bad long-term strategy, says another expert cited by The Guardian in the aforementioned article. The effectiveness of positive emotions is confirmed by an array of new research studies.
The importance of appealing to positive emotions is recognized not only by researchers but also by the charity sector itself. The Fundraising Regulator, an independent charity fundraising regulator in England, advises charities in their code of fundraising practices not to use “anything that is likely to cause fear or stress” in marketing communications without good reason. The code also prohibits the use of statements or images that “may shock some people” only to attract attention.

To sum up, the best promotion strategy for charities is to use positive emotions, combining them with rational arguments.

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