Does distress bring in more fundraising dollars? Or is framing a problem in light of an achievable solution the key to empowering your donors? John De Rango, director of Redstone Marketing, asks four leading fundraisers for their perspective.


Does distress bring in more fundraising dollars? Or is framing a problem in light of an achievable solution the key to empowering your donors? John De Rango, director of Redstone Marketing, asks four leading fundraisers for their perspective. Chris Stallard
Fundraising Manager
Mind Australia

It feels as though there has been a shift in the distress vs success approach over the past ten years or so. A number of small to medium nonprofits have entered professional fundraising, there’s been a trend of established charities increasing donation requests and new forms of fundraising have been introduced, such as face-to-face and online. There has also been additional coverage of natural disasters.

Simply put – more people are asking more often in more ways. I stress that this is not a bad thing, but it has brought the word ‘donor fatigue’ not just into our vocabulary but the wider community, making us re-think our long-term donor strategies.

I believe that ‘distress’ sells better in most situations and is likely to bring in more money (it’s emotional giving). But providing donors with a feeling of achievement and proof their contribution solved a problem is crucial – ‘success’ is what keeps donors engaged and increases the likelihood of that next gift.

A common trend has been following ‘distress’ with ‘success’; for example, in June telling a story about John who is distressed and needs help, and then following that up in July/August with a report on how donor support has successfully helped individuals like John.

Mind currently receives the vast majority of its funding through its regular giving program, iMind. Donors are recruited face-to-face with a combination of both distress (many individuals are faced with serious mental illness) and success (through a range of support services, individuals can and do recover). Donors can help provide these support services through regular giving, and as an organisation, we endeavour to report back to them with success stories.

Helen Wright
General Manager Fundraising and Communications
ActionAid Australia

When I first started fundraising back in the mid 90’s it was all about showing distress: small kids who were malnourished with swollen tummies and flies on their faces; skinny, beaten and abandoned dogs and donkeys … you get the picture. This certainly did the job of demonstrating the need, but for some donors it put them off. Rather than making them respond to that TV or press ad, it drove them to switch channels or turn the page.

In the early 2000’s there was a shift away from the more distressful, hard-hitting images. Perhaps it was because these shock tactics became like wallpaper and potential donors grew to ignore them. Or alternatively, as I would like to believe, there was a shift in thinking within nonprofits with the realisation that the people we are aiming to help deserve some dignity and should be portrayed in a more positive light. Not to say that there was a total shift to success stories – there certainly wasn’t.

If we look over the last 18 months here in Australia, appeals that have generated the most response and raised the most funds have been around emergency situations and natural disasters: the Victorian bushfires, the earthquake in Haiti, floods in Pakistan and most recently in Queensland. Seeing the loss of life and people in desperate need evokes compassion and drives people to respond.

Not every ask is an emergency, but every ask needs to inspire the donor to give. We have to demonstrate the need for funds and the urgency of helping right now. Fundraising messages need to cut-through, and without these two crucial elements, the communication will fail to achieve its objective.

Stefan Grun
Marketing and PR Manager
Able Australia

In my experience showing distress has more impact with donors. The campaigns I have seen carry more impact, especially quickly, are those which show a critical or immediate need for assistance, such as the recent flood relief appeals in Queensland or the bushfire relief appeals in Victoria. Although these are disaster appeals and probably fall outside ‘standard’ fundraising, the message rings true for other campaigns.

At Able Australia, our most successful appeals have focused on highlighting funding shortfalls or a client’s specific need for assistance. This might include a message about what the organisation or the individual has achieved (success story) but they always include the message that more needs to be done (distress). This does need to be balanced by the fact that people will always want to know that their donations will be spent appropriately.

Donors might give to a distress appeal because you have managed to tug their heart strings, but will they give again if they think you haven’t used their money wisely? Probably not. This is why I’m in favour of a mixed approach which balances distress with success.

Messages of success are really important in follow-up campaigns, particularly if you are asking someone a second time to donate to the same cause. If you are planning on changing focus to a new crisis to solve, you will certainly need to show some success with solving crisis number one before asking for donations to fund a solution to crisis number two; you need to assure donors you are making some progress.

When people give you a donation it is fundamentally because they see a problem they think needs to be fixed and believe you are the person or organisation to fix it for them. If they could do it easily themselves, they probably would. You have to ensure they see you have the ability to fix the problem, but first they must see and empathise with the problem.

Jillian Hamill
Membership Manager
The Wilderness Society Inc

This has been an interesting question for us to examine as an organisation, not just as fundraisers. I spoke with frontline communicators across the organisation who talk with the public and our supporters regularly. The common belief is that talking about success is by far better than focusing on distress and loss. However, both are often used and the ratio is dependent on the audience and context of the campaign.

There are already so many negative stories about what is happening to our environment; focusing on distress can reinforce an individual’s disempowerment. Showing evidence of success will instead serve to demonstrate to your audience that they can actually make a difference, and will also keep fundraisers themselves inspired and staying longer.

People naturally gravitate towards things that make them feel good, making decisions with their head and their heart. When you positively frame your campaign to show its value, you are implicitly creating benefits in becoming a supporter. You are also able to draw on nostalgia, which can evoke a strong emotional response and increase the involvement of your audience.

You do still need to discuss the issues that are the cause for fundraising and that make a situation urgent, but when accompanied by a solution to the problem, it can empower people and galvanise them into action.

Our bequest manager, Juanita, referred to the paper ‘Branding Biodiversity’ which commented that greenies have had a tendency to communicate campaigns through loss. The expectation is that their audience will value the environment for its own sake as they do, rather than the personal value it may have to that audience. This has proven an important distinction; connecting with people in a way that is relevant to them.

Our evidence points us towards building long-term engagement through success messaging, while raising the threat and providing a solution. Understanding the values and motivations of your audience, and the context of your campaign in their lives, remains a key factor to engagement.