Feeling Good about Feelings, Facts and Fundraising

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

“What the heart knows today the head will understand tomorrow.”

– James Stephens, Poet, 1880 – 1950

When I was a kid coming to terms with the insignificance of self, it was the infinity of the big wide universe that was my un-doing. If, post-Big Bang, the universe was ever-expanding, what was it expanding into? What was beyond the outer edge? Total brain-ache, as you can imagine. I try not to think about it these days.

These days, the science puzzle that blows my mind is the (r)evolutionary thought that our brains are cleverer than we are. Essentially, we make impulsive choices based on emotional gut-feel. Our brain doesn’t want us to feel bad, or stupid, so it post-rationalises that action for us, to calm any synapse anxiety. With nano-second speed our brain tells us that what we’ve done makes, to make us think we’re in control. And to make us feel good. See what I mean about your brain being cleverer than you?

Being scientifically illiterate, I don’t really get all the ins and outs, but this tantalising bit of neuro-science makes sense of stuff we have known as fundraising communicators for ages. ‘Known’, of course, from the gut-felt intuition of experience, and perhaps some specific test data thrown in. But here we have some science to make post-rational sense of all that intuition, and reassure us we’ve been right all along.

Feelings before Facts

What is it we’ve ‘known’? People don’t do what they say they do. They don’t behave the way they think they behave. People like to think they weigh up the evidence and make informed decisions, but they don’t. People ‘feel’ their way to sometimes irrational decisions. Emotion works (obviously).

Politics has come to understand that what people think and feel is more important than the facts. We vote for people most like us rather than listen to what they say. Which is why politicians feel it doesn’t matter if they lie. Just look at the fact-free Brexit referendum in the UK, decided on emotions of identity, fear and control. Or look at the substance and tone of presidential debate in the US right now.

The communications discipline of ‘framing’ came out of US politics, primarily Republicans understanding how to tap into people’s emotional frames of reference. Not just the issues they care about, but the values they identify with through which they relate to those issues.

Businesses know this stuff too. Commercial advertising has demonstrated that emotional messages (values, aspirations, empathy) are twice as effective as rational ones (product benefits, comparisons, price offers). We buy stuff we want but don’t need. That’s what all the ‘life-style’ advertising is about. Aspiration. Desire. Status. Self-image.

The Curse of Knowledge

It’s not binary, obviously, not just one thing or the other. And using emotion in fundraising is not news. But for some reason, charities still struggle with this, even if fundraisers largely get it. You’d think everyone understood the importance of emotion in charity communications by now. And yet I work with charity after charity where it is still a challenge for them to get comfortable with communicating emotion in their message.

So many organisations get stuck with the ‘curse of knowledge’. They have so much to say, and think you need to know it all, and feel compelled to say it all. It gets in the way of the urgency and focus of the most important message. (“People, let me tell you more to make you understand!”)

Frankly, charity communications have long had emotion censored out of them by policy and programme colleagues, who can view fundraising communications as “dumbed down”, and think enough rational facts will change minds and make people act.

It just doesn’t work that way. Facts are useful to help your brain post-rationalise your emotional response and reassure you, after you’ve been moved to act. Fundraisers shouldn’t be apologetic. We know our audiences, and we know from experience and intuition what moves them.

The Curse of Accountability

Accountability is essential. But the need for more accountability, particularly for grant and contract funders, and the professionalisation of organisations to deliver to that, has reinforced a culture in charities of rational facts over emotional feelings. Internal reporting is geared to financial control and funder accountability, so inevitably focuses on money, activities and outputs. More data, more facts.

The trouble with this comes when charities turn this approach to accountability towards their public supporters. Charities start to explain where money goes, explain admin and overheads, and explain more of what they do, without understanding they are answering the wrong question.

Feed the Feelings

What precisely their money is spent on what is not what really matters to people. People don’t, on the whole, literally want to know where every cent goes. People want to know what difference their money makes. Doubt about how money is spent comes when people don’t have a good feeling – reassurance, confidence and trust, whatever for the difference being made.

If they don’t feel good about their giving, and don’t feel they are making a difference, people will ask what their money is being spent on. By the time you’re being asked where the money goes, you’ve failed in making your supporters feel good.

It’s not all bad. People generally have high trust in charities, and continue to give to charity in spite of thinking that fundraising and admin costs are high, even though they imagine costs are higher than they really are. Why are people prepared to suspend their doubts and disbelief and keep giving, if that’s what they are doing? Because giving makes them feel good. Doubting that it makes a difference, doesn’t.

What science has shown, is that we feel before we think, and that we often act on emotion before we know why. What that means for our fundraising communications, is that we have to tell a story not about what money is spent on, but what money achieves.

More importantly, it means we have to be clear what emotion we hope people will feel before and after they act, and talk with emotion. We want people to feel good, and so do they.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  – Maya Angelou

PS. I always find a bit of music helps. So here’s James Brown, Nina Simone and Andy Williams with some Feelings classics.

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


Simone Joyaux · September 12, 2016 at 19:24

Marvelous. Wonderful. Here in Ahern / Joyaux (Simone / Tom) household, we swear by:

Dr. Antonio Dimasio
Dr. Donald Calne
Dr. Antoine Bechara
Carl Jung

Karl Wilding · September 14, 2016 at 12:00

I’m minded to remember John Snow, not the Games of Thrones character, but the epidemiologist who mapped the outbreak of cholera in London and traced it to the water pump at (I think) Old Street.

Anyway, John Snow wrote the phrase ‘Work like a bookkeeper, think like a poet’. As you say, we need both evidence and detail to fall back on, but first and foremost we need the laguage and feeling one might more experience with reading poetry.

Melissa Rigney · January 18, 2024 at 15:26

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