Many organizations use personal stories to inspire others to give. 

Fred Gold, annual fund officer at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and Sara Thomas, director of development at the Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center, both in Cleveland, said high-emotion appeals are a key to philanthropic campaigns.

“In broad terms, an emotional appeal is one that persuades a donor to support an organization based on an emotive response,” Gold said. “In every element of fundraising, there is some level of emotional connection, whether it is a love of dinosaurs, a sense of justice, fond memories, service to others, etc. Generally speaking, nonprofits seek to connect the importance of their work with their audience to inspire giving.”

Since Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center is a health-care organization, Thomas said emotional appeals come natural as many people relate emotion to their health.

“A lot of the people who become donors or serve on our board have had a very personal impact from our services,” she said. “They came here at a time where they didn’t know what was going to happen. In a sense, there tends to be a lot of emotion around giving like that.”

Thomas said to execute a high-emotional appeal, organizations need to be aware of their audience and potential donors.

“For us, we try to be politically correct, for example, in deafness,” she noted. “We wouldn’t want to make that a disease or show it in a negative way. It’s how someone is born and it’s a culture. You just generally want to be careful and mindful of why you’re telling a story, when and how you’re telling it. Remind yourself that these are real people.”

Gold added, “Any successful appeal is grounded in an organization’s mission and tells the story of how that mission is given life through the programs offered and people, animals or environments served. Yet, since charitable giving is so connected to emotional responses, there is a risk the intended message may not resonate with the audience.”

As more people are exposed to philanthropy via social media, some individuals may come across guilt-based donor requests. Both professionals said high-emotion appeals can sometimes read that way and can affect how potential donors view an organization.

“It’s very important for (organizations) to show donors the real, serious impact they’re making in real time and to see the life they helped to change,” Thomas explained. “We’re more focused on reminding you of your own experience or showing you what it could be like if you haven’t experienced that, and in an honest way. It’s not about feeling bad. That takes it too far. Using guilt with real people’s stories isn’t responsible”

Gold said, “Charitable giving is a choice. As a fundraiser, I hope to facilitate lifelong connections between donors and the museum. A key aspect of that connection is a sense of trust and responsibility. Every appeal we send reinforces that trust and that’s exactly how a high-emotion appeal should affect a donor’s feelings about an organization.”

No matter how these appeals are executed or received, the professionals said high-emotion appeals are an important part of philanthropic plans.

“When done correctly, our appeals will always affect our donors’ emotions, because our donors don’t want to give money, they want to help make the world a better place,” Gold stated. “Giving money is the way they choose to do that. Showing them the good they’ve done in the world through and with us will always be emotional.”

Thomas added, “There is very little that makes sense about giving away your money. You might not be getting a direct thing back from that. For the most part, if you’re generally writing a check, you’re getting nothing tangible.

So, you should feel like you’ve done something good and know that it helped someone else. An emotional appeal is an important part of that.”

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