Communication Currents

Effective Fundraising: It's the Message that Counts

June 1, 2008
Organizational Communication

Contrary to popular belief, it is not altruism that makes people donate to charity. It is the story the organization tells, and how they tell it, that determines the success of most charity fundraising efforts. People are social animals and donate more to charity if we communicate that other people are donating too. Sad messages are best combined with facts and figures, and effective anecdotes about victims should include a happy ending.

Some disasters tell their own story. Watching the victims of an earthquake on the news can be so overwhelming that viewers want nothing more than to help. Raising funds is fairly easy in such cases. The news has shown us vivid images of mothers mourning the loss of their children, dead bodies lying in the streets, and injured people crying for help. In such cases, many people give generously.

In reality, such cases are rare. Raising funds for charity is tough business most of the time. Many charity goals are unpopular and are hardly ever covered by the news. This has been the case with many big disasters in third world countries and regions, like Ethiopia or Darfur. As unfair as it may seem, not all big problems get big media attention. And even if a charity organization succeeds in reaching the audience, it is the public that decides to donate money or to keep it in their pockets. People can only give so much.

Keeping your money to yourself instead of giving it to charity can seem like a rational thing to do. One might believe that not much is lost if one person decides to spend their money on a new CD, instead of helping the victims of a famine. The problem is this: If everyone makes this rational, individual choice, nobody will donate money and problems will never get solved. This means that charity organizations depend on the goodwill of many people, not just a few, to solve a problem.

This is why the best advice for any charity organization is to communicate about the behavior and actions of other donors. People are social animals and look to the behavior of others to determine what to do. Communicating about the behavior of others also informs potential donors about the likelihood that the charity goal can be attained. If the public believes that nobody else will help solve a problem, they will be unlikely to donate money to a charity. Without the help of others, a problem cannot be solved anyway. On the other hand, if the public thinks that many other donors are already contributing, they are also unlikely to donate, because chances are great that the problem will be solved without their individual contributions.

Communicating about the behavior of others has to be done with care. Fundraising messages should underline the importance of each individual contribution for reaching a charity goal, and explicitly state that others are already contributing. A good way to go about this would be to state: Thanks to our 165,000 supporters, 150,000 leprosy patients are detected and treated each year. Of course a lot of money is needed to continue our projects. It only takes $50 to detect, treat and rehabilitate one patient. For the smaller amount of $15 a patient can be helped.

Beside message content, message design can be particularly helpful in influencing the perceived value of a charity goal. Design is about how to say it. We can make the same point in different ways. For instance, evidence can be presented in different ways by telling the story or giving the facts. Messages may give statistical information about number of casualties and injuries, including cold, hard facts, such as: 10,000 people will die of starvation if we do not support them. Another way to go about it is to include vivid narrative evidence, such as: This is Indra. She will die of starvation if we do not support her. Both types of evidence can be helpful in making people get it. It helps them see the problem.

Another way to help people get it is message framing. Fundraising messages can be framed in negative or positive term. An example of a negatively framed fundraising message is: 10,000 people will die of starvation if we do not support them, whereas a positive frame would describe the same facts as: 10.000 people can be saved from starvation with our support.

A negative frame works best with facts and figures. For instance, messages that mention the problems that will occur if we do not help should include the cold hard facts. Anecdotal evidence is most persuasive when combined with a positive frame. Personal accounts of the experiences of one victim should best include a happy ending about how problems got solved. The public needs a happy ending when a face is given to a crisis situation. Charity organizations that use this information stand a better chance of surviving the fundraising arena.