Building memories for non-profit success

Staying top of mind with your supporters is a big challenge. Your audience is constantly bombarded with competing messages. Standing out and being memorable means tapping into what’s unique about you.

Here is a little memory challenge. Have a look at this list of letters and try to memorize them: O T T F F S S E N T. We will come back to this later but for now let’s look at some of the mechanisms of human memory. Why? Because understanding a few things about how new messages get into our brains can help non-profit managers to be more effective in their communications and persuasion.

Our brains are exposed to many thousands of stimuli every day, and for each one, tens of thousands of neurons are fired – if not more. This creates a lot of complexity. To help catalogue complex information, the brain summarizes by creating simple memory units, using personal associations, visions, mnemonics and metaphors. To get encoded and stored as a memory unit, a message needs to have some of the following features: relevance, simplicity, rich emotional triggers and consistency over time. Recent research has explored more deeply the role of personal, emotional connections in motivating donors.

Brands in the corporate world learned this lesson years ago, and consistently use it to build memorable campaigns. Think of the Geico gecko, Tony the Tiger, the lonely Maytag repair man, and the cute Royale tissue kittens. Every time we see these characters they trigger memory associations and the message of the brand. As well, ads that use a simple brand jingle or slogan e.g. “Just do It”, “Open happiness”, “Eat Fresh”, “I am stuck on Band-Aid”, “It’s Miller time”, also tend to perform better. These examples clearly illustrate the value of building simple memory units in your communications to make it easier for messages to get stored and retrieved from memory.

Let’s now revisit the letters you were asked to memorize. Without looking back, can you recall the letters?

If you are struggling, you likely found no relevant meaning and no easy way to memorize them. If you saw them as a series of meaningless letters then you probably had no emotional engagement. On the other hand, if you realized that O T T F F S S E N T are the first letters of the numbers 1 to 10 (O for one, T for two, and so on), then all of a sudden you saw relevance and meaning. Now, these seemingly random letters are summarized into a simple memory unit that can be easily stored and recalled. Interestingly, if you felt tricked or surprised then you’re even more likely to remember the letters – because emotions enhance lasting memories. This is the power of a simple memory unit or mnemonic device.


Focus your communications on building simple memory units – and actively avoid just talking at people in a stream of words. Build mnemonic associations. Work to establish a character or spokesperson. Invest in a relevant slogan. Tell a compelling story as a simple unified idea. And the more you can make this emotionally engaging and relevant, the greater the probability of creating a lasting memory.

Get more insights into the important role of emotions in building donation intention – download our free DonorBuilder™ summary.


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John Hallward – author of “Gimme! The Human Nature of Successful Marketing”. John has spent over 30 years at Ipsos, leading the evaluation of advertising for many of the biggest global advertisers. From databases of thousands of researched campaigns, John has extracted some key insights on effective advertising and persuasion.