Why emotions are important in charity appeals

To be effective, your message to donors needs to elicit an emotional response. Explaining your impact and making a strong case for support are important, but hitting the right emotional chords is critical.

Why do humans have emotions? They must serve a purpose, or they would have disappeared as our species evolved. In short, emotions play an incredibly important role in our lives.

An emotional reaction usually causes us to act in some way. For example, we experience fear, and it helps us to avoid danger and increase our chances of survival. In addition to emotional reactions, humans also have emotional desires (needs, aspirations, hopes, and so on) that play a powerful role in how we make decisions. Research shows that people are driven by emotions, whether consciously or not, when they make spending decisions. We usually judge how our choices will make us feel before we act. This begs the question; what emotional associations do donors hold for your charitable organization?

In the for-profit world, the brands that leverage emotions earn stronger loyalty and brand equity. Facts and rational performance characteristics play a secondary role to how people expect to feel from their purchasing decisions. Think of “Just do it” (Nike), “Think different” (Apple), “Because you’re worth it” (L’Oreal) or “Open happiness” (Coke). These brands have worked to leverage strong emotional drivers such as the need to take action, to be unique or to feel happy.

The corporate world has figured this out, but why aren’t more non-profit and charity appeals oriented to the emotional pay-offs people are looking for? Why do charities so often just talk about themselves in their communications? Why do so few focus on the emotional associations which donors act on? Recently released research has confirmed that personal, emotional connections and urgency are the most important factors motivating donors. Remember: Selling is NOT saying what you want to say, but it is delivering the feelings which people want to experience.

We are not recommending simply making emotional ads; a good slogan, or an image of cute puppies isn’t enough. We are referring to leveraging the emotions that people want to experience when they see your message. Quite often, overly emotional advertising fails because it misses the emotional connection to the person. For brands, some important emotional triggers include curiosity, happiness, friendship, inspiration and warmth, but also surprise, fear, anger and sadness.


Focus your communications on emotional persuasion. We like to refer to this as emoti-suasion. This means appealing to your target’s emotional needs. The more you can add emotional rewards for donors to experience, the greater your opportunity to be more appealing. It will be very important to strike exactly the right emotional chords. Most marketers agree that touching the more positive sentiments is less risky than the negative, but there are always exceptions. For 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.