Triggering a donor's emotions is the key to fundraising success, congress hears

The behavioural economist Dan Hill tells the IFC that getting people to think rationally does not maximise donations

Dan Hill
Dan Hill

Triggering an emotional response from donors holds the key to fundraising success, delegates at the International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands have been told.

Dan Hill, a behavioural economist and president of the science-based emotional insights consultancy Sensory Logic, was speaking at a session on 17 October called Irrational Fundraising – the Power to Read Supporters’ Minds.

Hill, author of a book called Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success, said people were fundamentally emotional decision-makers.

"If you want to be successful at fundraising, the more you make people think, the less they feel; and the less they feel, the less they are motivated to give," he said. 

"It is how the brain is wired – emotional responses dictate how successful you are at asking for money.

"To get them to think does not lead to behaviour change. None of that will happen unless you make an emotional connection."

Hill cited research by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in London that found emotionally oriented adverts made twice as much money as their rational counterparts.

He gave an example of a fundraising campaign for children in Africa. The emotional, story-based appeal resulted in an average donation of £1.47; one based on statistics about education, the rational appeal, made 71p per donation. When emotion was combined with rational data, it diluted the gift and the average donation was 89p, he said.

Hill gave a demonstration of ‘facial coding’ – he analysed the expression of a volunteer delegate as she was given an impromptu street fundraising pitch.    

If you saw sadness or disgust on someone’s face, he said, it showed someone wanted to change that situation. "It is taking them from the problem to the solution," said Hill. "It is an emotional pager. People are looking for progress, and I would stay with it."

Francesco Ambrogetti, a fundraising adviser for Asia and Pacific at UNFPA, the UN agency on reproductive health, also spoke at the session.

He gave the example of Karen Klein, a 68-year-old school bus monitor from Athens in the US, who was filmed being verbally abused by four teenage boys on the school bus until she started crying.

The video went viral on YouTube, gaining nine million hits, and the public outcry thus sparked led to an appeal that raised £435,000 for Klein.

"It is all about emotions driving people to act," Ambrogetti said. The fundraisers he spoke to about the case were annoyed they could not get that type of reaction for their causes, said Ambrogetti, despite them affecting millions more people.

Nevertheless, he said, there were things that fundraisers could do. "There are six core emotions: happiness, surprise, anger, disgust, sadness and fear," he said. "Does your campaign provoke one of these emotions?"

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