Cry me a river: WHY and HOW emotions can save fundraising and the non profit world

Published by Francesco Ambrogetti on

When was the last time you had a discussion with your board or with communication colleagues because they felt that the images of the last campaign were “too emotional”? And do you remember when you tried to control your heart beat, your sweat or your tears in front of a crowd or a donor, telling the story of one of those who needs our help?

I found myself puzzled with these questions when the case of Karen Klein from Greece (a district in US, not the country with the Parthenon) became a web hit. The video shows Karen, a woman whose job is monitoring vandalism on a public bus, bullied by a group of teenagers. The video provoked such an outrage (more than 2 million watched on YouTube) and raised an unexpected $750,000 in few weeks, instead of the originally target of $5,000 to “give Karen a nice holiday”. This was not orchestrated by a social media guru; it was not planned by an advertising agency or by a major charity. But it had the power of generating an emotion (anger) that mobilized millions of people to do something, including giving money.

Instead of something to hide or control, emotions are driving our decisions and I believe that our fundraising is becoming much too formulaic and rational, often lacking the power of emotions to engage with donors. This is why – also thanks to the contributions of Alan Clayton and Ken Burnett as well as Malcom Gladwell and Dan Hill – we are finally discussing how to bring back the emotions at the core of our work.

1. Out of the lab: what we know about donation-making from neuroscience. During the past ten years several studies contributed to map which part of the brain is engaged when we do certain things.

  • Decisions are activated by the limbic system of the brain, which is unconscious, and also regulates our memories and the heartbeat. The rational part, which governs our logical thoughts and the language, intervene only after the decision is taken (the” gut feeling”) to justify or explain why we do things.
  • The same part of the brain is active when we decide to donate, provoking the same reaction caused by other stimuli like sex, food and money, hence the scientific proof that “giving makes you happy”!
  • Our brain works through images:  two third of stimuli that reach our brain are visual and  more than half of the brain works on visual stimuli
  • Paul Elkmann (who inspired the successful TV series “Lie to me”) and Dan Hill,  discovered that the key emotions – those who drive an action like pushing a button, giving  by credit card or writing a cheque, signing a petition, etc.- are just six: happiness, surprise, anger, disgust, sadness, fear.

2. Fiona and Rachel: the power of emotions at work. I would like to show how these six emotions work in practice, with the successful examples from two small organizations, Hope  for Paws and charity:water. The videos works not only because thousands of people donated  after watching, but moved people  to tears and smiles when I showed them to crowds from diverse cultures (including supposed stereotyped  “cold” nationalities or cultures). The table below shows emotions playing in these appeals, so watch the videos first. CAUTION: even if you don’t like animals or children, I guarantee that while you watching these videos you will cry, smile, felt upset and have goose bumps at the same time.



 3. Brain-dead or what we can and must do to connect with donors’ emotions

What fundraisers can and must do to make their appeals and campaigns more “on emotion” and less “on message”? Commercial advertising is turning to emotions (e.g., Zappos “delivering happiness”) while I fear that our fundraising is often too rational and formulaic. So it is time we reclaim our space and here are four points for a fundraising revolution lead by emotions.

  • Storytelling:  the power of one and the authenticity. The power of Rachel and Fiona, like other successful appeals, is that are authentic stories, not only because are true but because the way are told. Our brain reacts much better to the “story of one” than to the statistics. We have incredible stories from our volunteers, field workers, donors or beneficiaries: we just have to tell and show them.
  • More than words.  Doesn’t matter if you write a direct mail or if you prepare a  pitch to a company, we must show more our needs and our work through images, visually or creating them in people minds through words
  • The emotion formula.  There is not a secret formula on the best or strongest emotions. Emotions have to express your mission and your cause; however, it doesn’t matter which media, any fundraising communication has to contain one or more of the six key emotions to succeed.
  • Truth is written all over your face. While ”test ,test, test”  is our fundraising guide to success, we should increasingly use specialized techniques to analyse facial micro expressions. Facial muscles are not controllable by our rational brain when we “feel” something. Looking and analysing our donor’s faces could help us to detect if our messages are on emotion or not.

It’s time for an emotional revolution and I think that an artist like Lucian Freud summarize our role better than anything. When asked what he was doing, he said I like to “astonish, disturb, seduce and convince”. This is what fundraising is all about and this is what the emotion revolution should be aim at, to change or make this world better.

Francesco Ambrogetti

Francesco is Innovative Finance and Partnership advisor at Capital Development fund of the UN. Before joining the UN in NY, he was the Director of Fundraising and Marketing for UNICEF Italy, leading a $70 million a year revenue programme. He has over 20 years' international fundraising experience with UNICEF, UNAIDS and UNFPA in Geneva, Bangkok, and Panama, and has advised organizations like the World Bank, WWF, MSF, and The Red Cross. He is teaching fundraising at the University of Bologna and authored various articles and books on marketing and fundraising, including "Emotionraising: How to Astonish, Disturb, Seduce and Convince the Brain to Support Good Causes" (Civil Society Press, 2016).


Ronald Hemerik · November 5, 2012 at 22:13

Hi Fransesco,
Great insights for tomorrow’s practice!
Arriverderci (Ron alumni Unicef 2003 – 2006)

Eleanor L. Brilliant · November 8, 2012 at 21:23

Hi Fancesco, Interesting ideas! I was reading them when with surprise I noted who they came from! The email came to me at work– I am working (yes!) two days/week at the Volunteer Referral Center in Manhattan. Writing gratns among other things. How are You and what are you up to? All Best, Eleanor

Eleanor L. Brilliant, DSW
Director of Program Development
Volunteer Referral Center

Kathleen Wolff · November 15, 2012 at 22:47

Hi Francesco,
Thanks for the informative blog! I would only add that pacing and timing are also crucial for tapping emotion through story telling. A good example of timing – foreshadowing, pacing, opening thesis and emotional crescendo – are illustrated in a 7:30 minute film shown yesterday at a fundraiser in Washington DC. If you send along your email, I will share it on Vimeo.
Kathleen Wolff
Everystep Productions

Mitchell Hinz, WWF International · December 7, 2012 at 03:51

Francesco, great blog, sorry it took me a while to get to it.

Not only did you name many of my personal (fundraising or not) “Heros” (Ken Burnett, Malcolm Gladwell) but I had to laugh out loud:

On my desk is a set of four “pins” from the Lucian Freud show:

Astonish / Disturb / Seduce / Convince

I also found them to be EXACTLY what fundraiser’s need to do.

Thanks again, grazie mile, bravo!


Roger Keczkes · January 15, 2013 at 10:22

Superb Francesco. I totally agree, today many NGOs have lost the heart our sector once epitomized in their communications. You`re insight is as ever smart and so relevant for us – and yes, the video made me cry!

Theresa McEaddy · July 11, 2016 at 19:55

Thanks for the information. Most helpful.

streaming film · January 17, 2019 at 13:24

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