A Central Fact: Emotions Are the Decision-Makers

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: all human decisions are triggered by emotions. Neuroscience and psychological research prove it. Consider two important statements, the first from Carl Jung. Remember him? According to Jung, “There can be no transforming…of apathy into movement without emotion.” And every organization confronts apathy and inertia from those we hope might give. And even from those who already gave but must still be motivated by the fundraising writing. The second important statement comes from neurologist and author Donald B. Calne: “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action, while reason leads to conclusions.” You want action! Action is when the donor writes the check. Action is when the donor calls her legislator on your behalf. Action is when the family makes a bequest to your agency.

Psychologist W. Gerrod Parrott has identified 135 emotional states. You’ll see them listed in my book with Tom Ahern, Keep Your Donors: The Guide to Better Communications and Stronger Relationships. But who can remember 135? Over generations of testing, the direct marketing industry has identified seven emotional triggers that are particularly good at generating a response. I’ve told you these before: anger, fear, greed, guilt, flattery, exclusivity, and salvation. Do you use them? Do these emotions appear in every single donor newsletter, in your direct mail solicitations, in your storytelling? Read my September 23, 2011 column, “How to Use Emotions in a Personal Solicitation,” for an example of how this works.

Sadly, an annoying challenge might come from your boss. She says that fundraising is like an IPO: present the facts, and just the facts, to gather investors. (I’m wondering if even an IPO is really all about facts. Look at the frenzy with Facebook’s IPO. Honestly, was that all facts and just the facts?) And some board member will say, “I create a rationale and then people give to the rationale.” Well, they’re both wrong—your boss and the board member. Neuroscience proves it. And it’s your job to read articles about neuroscience. I don’t mean academic articles with neuroscientists talking to neuroscientists. I mean your job is to read the journalists’ translations.

Subscribe to neurosciencemarketing.com. Roger Dooley (a marketer, not a journalist) gives you and I excellent insights about neuroscience research. Now it’s your job and mine to translate this into fundraising. Read Dooley’s Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing. Read Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. Read Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing. It’s all science. And these authors write in ways that you and I can understand, explore, and then apply. Read this stuff. Right now! Apply it!

Talk with your development colleagues about this information. Talk with your fund development committee. You’re the fundraiser. Be the expert. Keep up with the body of knowledge. Lead.

And now, drum roll, please . . . some neuroscience facts (with more to come in my next column):

Emotional messaging works. And rational messaging actually hurts. Hurts. That board member who claims he creates a rationale? Don’t let him solicit!

Here are the research stats on advertising effectiveness, reported on neurosciencemarketing.com on July 27, 2009: Rational content is 16 percent effective. Mixed content is 26 percent effective. And emotional content is 31 percent effective. The authors “attribute this split to our brain’s ability to process emotional input without cognitive processing . . . as well as our brain’s more powerful recording of emotional stimuli.”

Here’s another one—about flattery: Research shows that “even when people perceive that flattery is insincere, that flattery can still leave a lasting and positive impression of the flatterer.” Of course, ethical marketers—and that means fundraisers, too—use flattery honestly. That’s from research by Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, reported on February 17, 2010 on neurosciencemarketing.com.

So I repeat: Collect samples of good donor communications that effectively use emotions, and use those emotions in your donor newsletter, your direct mail solicitation, the stories you tell in your annual report, and on your website.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker

    Given the truth of the science, it seems urgent to also discuss the ethics of using the science to influence behavior. More to come on that? Also, would love to hear more about applications to programming and management, where we’re also constantly trying to influence people’s behavior.

  • Becky Lunders (totalteamworks.com)

    Great insight! I’ve been telling nonprofits for years that you have to lead with the mission and the money will follow. It’s so true and effective! This article reinforces the fact that a simple testimonial connecting the “why” to the fundraising reaps results. Emotion (and I would say passion!) seems to be the key ingredient for successful nonprofits, which are the glue that holds this world together!

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks for the comments. In response:
    — Understanding, respecting, acknowledging, and engaging with people’s emotions is about being donor-centered. It is not manipulative. It is not unethical. Pay attention to how I feel, as the prospective donor. Tell stories (and stories depend upon emotions) that I am interested in, that will engage me. Several of my previous columns tell you my stories as a donor. You’ll see how this works.
    — Subscribe to Roger Dooley’s http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com newsletter. He talks about neuroscience and its applicability to customers. And donors are customers of your nonprofit.
    — Periodically, you’ll see articles in the New York Times about neuroscience and its applicability. Research shows that helping others makes people happier. Read Sherry Turkle, MIT social scientist and her books and articles (and NPR interviews) about what’s happening to our brains (neuroscience and psychology) through the Internet, social media, robotics. Read Shankar Vedantam’s book The Hidden Brain.
    — I learn about all this stuff by reading reading reading. I read outside the fundraising and nonprofit realm. I read Tom Ahern’s enews and books. I read Jeff Brooks and The Agitator. And that’s how I encounter, explore, and learn this stuff. Go for it. Enjoy. Then figure out how to apply it to your situation.

    Another important mantra in fundraising and management and life…. Figure out what the barriers are for other people when you are trying to communicate. Whether you’re communicating a story to secure a gift or communicating a change necessary in program or operations or or … We have to quit focusing on what “we’re” trying to accomplish and figure out what others are trying to accomplish. We have to figure out their worries and anxieties and motivations and barriers and and … Always remember Dale Carnegie’s wonderful quote (1930s American self-help guru): “You’ll have more fun and success when you stop trying to get what you want and start helping other people get what they want.”

    One final thought: Donors give through your organization…not to it. I give to accomplish my own aspirations, fulfill my own needs, connect to my own feelings… Everyone does that. That’s beautiful and glorious. And we all look for organizations to give through, to fulfill our own aspirations.

  • Eliza Olson

    John Smith who passed away recently put it this use Saxon oriented words avoid Latin oriented words. When you cmpare the two, you will realize Saxon derived words are “right brain” words and action oriented. Latin based words are left brained words and they are the thoughtful words. Joe Vitale’s book “HypnoticWriting says the same thing but he doesn’t call the words left or right brain. Webcopy that Sells by Veloso gives you comparision lists as well as lists of words to use.