Top Four Motivators for Getting A Gift

Direct mail is also called "persuasion" mail, for obvious reasons:  Someone wants to persuade you to do something; in our case, we want to inspire financial support.  There are other possible actions, too – requests for activism or other form of participation, for example – but overwhelmingly the mission is to secure contributions.

In direct marketing, the four major motivators for donating are:

  • Fear
  • Greed
  • Guilt
  • Anger

There are also a few, less-powerful motivators, including Empathy, Self-Affirmation, and Intellectual Reason.  I often have to rely on these motivators if I don't have the ability to use fear, greed, guilt and anger, but long years of testing continue to prove that they just don't inspire support like the big four.

Let's delve a bit deeper into each of the motivators....

FEAR:  Fear is the subtext in most fundraising for health organizations.  While logic and clarity are top-line priorities, the subtext is an almost-atavistic degree of fear.  Especially for diseases whose very names strike fear, there is a powerful underlying understanding: "If you don't give now, we still won't have a cure when YOU or someone you love is diagnosed."  While never said overtly, such a message is foundational to health causes – and it is based not in reason but in fear.

GREED:  Greed is the reason so many premium-based packages succeed. When a donor receives mailing labels, a wall calendar, a postage stamp or pen to sign a petition in the mail, he or she feels the pull of greed – they feel the instinctive pleasure of getting something for nothing.  These packages tend to produce good initial responses, but unless carefully used (or used closely in alignment with the mission), they do not generally create donor lists with a high lifetime value.  When premium packages are used without an overarching strategy, they create a list of “tippers” who are not tied to the organization and cannot be relied on.

But when used judiciously, a greed-based package can reinforce a donor’s inborn desire to support a cause.  Mailing labels, for example, are strong motivators when the goal of the organization is to promote a sense of community or of communication.

GUILT:  Guilt is a powerful motivator, and actually is the flip side of greed.  Many a premium package has succeeded because the donor felt guilty about accepting a free gift, and is thus persuaded to make a gift in return. 

There are specific aspects of guilt that can strengthen a package; people who live in homes with heat and without leaks can feel guilty that the homeless do not have this; people who are healthy can feel guilty that others suffer the injustice of a disease that strikes arbitrarily.  We can touch on the emotion of the person who can see misery and sorrow and think “There but for the grace of God go I.”

ANGER:  Anger is a useful path to inspire donation.  It calls on the frustration of the donor – draws on why the donor cares about the mission – and wonders “why hasn’t (more) progress been made?”  The single biggest reason most people say they don’t contribute to causes that matter to them is because they say they haven’t been asked to help.  So a fundraising appeal that asks for help will get a stronger response if it proposes a solution to the anger that drives the interest.

I love anger-based motivations because the people who respond out of anger are truly the membership base any organization wants to have.  You don't have to give them note pads to get them to contribute - they see themselves as your partner, and want to join you in taking action to stop what angers them.  I'd say my career is based on anger.  And that's a GOOD thing!

EMPATHY:  Empathy is the more reasoned version of guilt.  It is a far less powerful motivator for support.  One can appreciate what a stranger is going through without being inspired to made a donation, while a sense of guilt about having better luck is more likely to motivate a donation.

SELF-AFFIRMATION:  Occasionally we can give voice to a complaint or frustration that a potential donor feels has been unheard for years; we give the chance to say "I've been saying that for YEARS!"   Self-affirmation is satisfying; therein lies its weakness as a motivator.  It can be enough for the donor to feel their frustrations are recognized; they may not feel inspired to take action to effect a change. And, even if you are able to use self-affirmation to get the first donation, it is unlikely you'll retain that donor because the first (and only) donation has left them fulfilled.

INTELLECTUAL REASON:  This motivator is the weakest of all.  It is perfectly appropriate to a white paper or thought piece, but decades of testing prove it does not inspire financial action.  Appealing to a donor’s intellectual reason is best used in conjunction with fundraising appeals, as in a newsletter or other cultivation.  But in fundraising it’s quite clear that one must engage the heart at the same time as – if not before – the head.

Finding the right motivation for a cause is like unlocking a door.  It stops the organization’s appeals from being seen as “begging” for support.  With the right motivation – strong and emotional – the appeal is welcomed in, and provides a glad opportunity for donors to take part in a cause or mission that matters deeply to them.