Is emotion the most important driver in donor intent?

To be effective, nonprofit messaging (ads, appeals, etc.) should elicit an emotional response and reinforce the positive feelings that donors wish to experience. Explaining your mission, impact and efficiency are secondary.

Research shows that people are driven by emotions, whether consciously or not, when they make spending decisions. The corporate world has figured this out, but why aren’t more nonprofit and charity appeals oriented to the emotional pay-offs people are looking for?

Many for-profit brands leverage emotions to earn stronger loyalty and brand equity. Think of “Just do it” (Nike), “Because you’re worth it” (L’Oreal) or “Open happiness” (Coke). These brands appeal to the emotions consumers wish to experience such as the need to take action, to be valued or to feel happy.

This begs the question; are your communications making the most of these emotional connections? Our recent study on the role of emotions in nonprofit communications, confirms that emotional appeal is even more important than rational appeal in driving donations. And, when it comes to communications, many nonprofits are talking too much about their mission and impact, while falling short on the emotional connection.

The research shows that the most effective communications include more than just rational elements. The strongest nonprofit marketers are working to build emotional connections and create a sense of urgency. However, we’re not talking about just any emotions. Positive emotions are the most strongly motivating for donations – generally speaking, happy is better than sad and pride is better than guilt. And it’s not simply about an emotional story line. Donors respond well when they feel good about themselves. So, the key is to help them experience the feelings of happiness, pride and self-worth that they will feel when they support you.

Nonprofit marketers should consider pre-testing to screen for the highest impact communications. While many organizations use A/B testing to determine the most effective messages, consumer research prior to launching your communications is often more efficient, timely and cost-effective.


Focus more on "EMOtivating" donors. This means shifting the focus of your communications from rational to emotional appeal. And leveraging positive emotions such as happiness, pride and self-worth. The good news is there may be money on the table. Nonprofits that do a good job leveraging emotional appeal are performing better as fundraisers.