Bracing yourself, you reach for the envelope, answering the unignorable call of a child’s beseeching face, looking up to you from beside the address panel. Walk with me. Stand with me. Hold my hand. Help me, it asks.

“I want to”, you might think, long before you could have made what might be called an informed decision. And long before you have addressed the questions of how you will, to what extent, or even why you should.

If not this exact scenario, and if not this exact medium, most of us who have ever made a charitable gift will know this feeling. It is the feeling of reacting humanly. Emotionally. It happens in a nanosecond and what follows is a rational attempt to justify that emotional response. 

There’s increasing evidence from the burgeoning field of neuroscience that people do make decisions this way — emotionally, then justify them rationally. 

According to Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, 95% of our purchase decisions are made unconsciously. Part of the reason may be that our emotional decision-making is just quicker. A study called the Iowa Gambling Task demonstrated this by giving people four decks of cards and rewarding them or punishing them financially based on the cards they drew. The decks had 80 cards each. Two gave smaller, consistent rewards. Two gave much larger rewards, but also more severe penalties. 

After around 50 cards, people stopped drawing from the high-reward-high-risk decks, but it wasn’t until the 80th card that they could say why. In other words, their emotional, unconscious brains had decided long before their rational brains caught up. 

So, should we be rushing to front load our appeals with emotional content? Well, yes. But it is trickier than that.

In a study comparing the effect of rational and emotional appeals on donation behaviour by Professor Matthew Lindauer and others for the journal Judgement and Decision Making, researchers compared the behaviour of participants in response to four appeal conditions. The conditions were emotional, rational, combined-emotional-first and combined-rational-first.

“At minimum, including both emotional and rational content is a rock-solid bet each way. In doing so, you have two opportunities to hit the mark.”

Surprising the researchers, the effectiveness of the emotional approach did not differ significantly from the rational approach. And they couldn’t find that combining rational and emotional appeals had significantly stronger effect. Basically, everything worked as well as everything else. And yet, in my role at Donor Republic, where I see more real-world fundraising communications in a month than most people see in a lifetime — and their results — this doesn’t hold true. 

Every successful appeal I see has something in common. 

It’s founded on a strong, emotional proposition that is supported by both emotional and rational content, and that requires a tangible action — a gift toward something that physically exists or will happen — to satisfy the proposition.

In short, they say “You can achieve this emotional outcome by supporting this rational action.” It’s a formula that underpins best practice. We use it because it works. 

Perhaps some greater insight as to why can be found in a review of literature from the past 35 years entitled Emotion and Decision Making, published on annualreviews.org. Emotions constitute “potent, pervasive, predictable, sometimes harmful and sometimes beneficial drivers of decision making,” it said. So much so that the researchers (Lerner & colleagues) propose what they call an ‘emotion-imbued choice model’. 

Essentially, it acknowledges that your emotional state is much more integrally linked to both conscious and nonconscious evaluation than traditionally modelled. Decisions are imbued with emotion. Which means you’d be unwise to ignore them in your fundraising, and not to include content that talks to them. As much as you’d be unwise not to include rational content. 

At minimum, including both emotional and rational content is a rock-solid bet each way.

In doing so, you have two opportunities to hit the mark. Plus, you can dial up and dial down based on the needs of your audience.

Results from Donor Republic appeals — and broad industry experience — show that mid and high-value donors respond well to increased levels of rational content, for example. Our work has consistently demonstrated that they still respond to emotional propositions, but they require less by way of quantity and less by way of intensity from emotional content.

So, how to build and balance your content? The trick is to wrap it in a great story. 

Studies, including one by Gerry Everding published on PhysOrg.com, prove hearing a story gets the parts of your brain that process sight, sound, taste and movement firing. In other words, a good story turns your appeal from an academic exercise to a physical experience. Balancing emotional and rational content — drama, intrigue, need and urgency with authentic solutions and practical real-world actions — and making sure they join up in a coherent narrative, makes for a better story. It fires people up to give. And that is what really matters.