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If You Write It (with Emotion), They Will Give

September 2007

Excerpt from How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets

Mostly, people give from the heart. The head is a bit player.

We assume just the opposite. In our post-industrial, technologically enhanced world, we worship reason. We believe that reason, our ability to work our way intellectually through problems, sets us apart as a species and yields huge benefits. And it does.

But reason has surprisingly little to do with decision making, neuroscientists now know. (Delicious irony there: science proves that emotion, not reason, controls most choices.)

People don't give to your organization because they've made a coolly calculated decision to support you. They give because you've moved them somehow, sometimes in ways that don't sound all that "charitable." Flattery and greed are important emotional triggers, for instance. But, then, so are hope and joy.

Engage people's emotions and the world is your oyster.

People like to feel things. They like to feel good. They like to feel warm. They like to feel proud. They like to feel they've done something useful and important. They also like to have their anger soothed, their fears relieved. And they'll pay to experience those emotional states, even for a few seconds.

The most profitable direct mail and newsletter programs are those that sustain in donors a constant state of emotional tingle. Consider the abundant use of emotional triggers to be a sort of foreplay. For the donor, writing the check completes the act of love.

Emotional Triggers

I had a bracelet made for my wife, Simone.

She's a fundraising consultant, and teaches a lot. But she was always forgetting one or more of the emotional triggers (they're called "triggers" because, when pulled, an emotional reaction happens).

So, as an easy reminder, I had a bracelet made with the seven top emotional triggers stamped into the stainless steel links. There are many more than seven emotional triggers, mind you. But these seven are revered—nay, worshipped—by the direct mail industry in the United States.

On her wrist Simone wears a bracelet bearing the following words:

  • Anger
  • Exclusivity
  • Fear
  • Flattery
  • Greed
  • Guilt
  • Salvation
If she ever has to go to a hospital, what will people think?

The Kennedy Center Invites You

Let's see how some of these seven emotional triggers work in real life.

The example below is from a notably successful membership invitation mailed by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Results were so spectacular that a major trade magazine wrote up the campaign. Here's what the invitation said in large type, right beneath the logo:
You are hereby invited to become a Member of the Kennedy Center at a full 20% discount and gain the special privilege to purchase advance tickets before the general public to the finest Kennedy Center presentations.
This is a professionally written moneymaker. Let me reveal to you the emotional triggers buried in the author's choice of words:
You are hereby invited [flattery] to become a Member [exclusivity] of the Kennedy Center at a full 20% discount [greed] and gain [greed] the special privilege [exclusivity] to purchase advance tickets before the general public [exclusivity] to the finest [exclusivity] Kennedy Center presentations.
You might quickly conclude from this example: the more emotional triggers, the better. And you'd be right. But notice, too, how focused the triggers are in the Kennedy Center piece. They operate within a pretty narrow range: flattery, exclusivity, greed. They reinforce each other harmoniously, urging the reader toward a purchase decision.

Some emotional triggers lean negative (fear, anger). Some emotional triggers lean positive (hope, compassion). But one thing is certain: there's no shortage to choose from. Researcher W. Gerrod Parrott has isolated 135 different human emotional states, each distinct enough to be instantly recognizable. A choice of emotions that diverse should be more than enough to suit any fundraising occasion.

Tom Ahern, Ahern Communications, Ink.
© 2007, Tom Ahern. Excerpted from How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers. All rights reserved.

Tom Ahern is author of How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets and Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible. An authority on making nonprofit communications consistently effective, he is president of Ahern Communications, Ink., a consultancy specializing in capital campaign materials and other nonprofit communications. He speaks frequently in the United States and Canada on reader psychology, direct mail principles, and good (and not very good) graphic design as applied to fundraising and nonprofit branding.