Does good news sell?

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With charities’ fundraising practices under increasing scrutiny there’s more and more  focus on ensuring that campaigns to bring in new supporters don’t bring a charity into disrepute. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that major charities are increasingly using more positive messaging in activities aimed at recruiting new donors.

For example both WaterAid and Oxfam have recently launched DRTV campaigns with resolutely upbeat messages. They’re nice, well executed and make you feel good.

But do campaigns like this work?

We’d all like to live in a world where people gave charities money as a result of the positive stories about the good we do, rather than responding to the horrors and evils that abound in the world. But our experience as fundraisers is that this isn’t how donors behave. If you don’t show the need you don’t get the gift.

And to the extent that we can trust behavioural research into fundraising (which is not all that much), the evidence is clearly that “sad” images and messages trump “happy” most of the time.

So it’ll be interesting to see how these new campaigns and others that are coming like them will work. I’ve learned to be very cautious about forecasting how fundraising campaigns will work based on just seeing the creative. There are a lot of other factors at work and without really knowing the strategy behind a campaign we shouldn’t rush to judgement. These examples are clearly not in the “stupid nonprofit ad” category (a favourite website of mine). They have clearly been developed by experienced people who know what they’re doing. Both charities are clearly chasing donors who will give more for longer and are probably able to accept that this approach is likely to cost them more in the short term. I guess we’ll see how successful this turns out to be.

I worry more though about other, perhaps less sophisticated charities who take from these and other examples the message that they should make their fundraising more “positive”. The fundamentals of fundraising haven’t changed in my view. If you can’t clearly articulate need and make an emotional connection with an individual, your campaign isn’t likely to work.

Fundraisers are under lots of pressure from other people in their organisations to tell good news stories. To tell uplifting stories about the progress that is being made. It’s important to report back to donors that their gifts have made a difference.

But too much of this happy content and they will ask, “so why do you need us?”

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