Fri, March 14 2008

Gloom and Doom Are Downers

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

Filed under:   Fundraising essentials •

This is my latest column for Fundraising Success.  I print it here to share it with you, but also in response to this week’s Nonprofit Consultants’ Carnival, which is hosted by Sam Davidson and focuses on “green” in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.  I think this message is especially important for the environmental movement.

A few months ago, I saw a full-spread, anti-slave labor ad that featured shackled hands, one on each side of the two pages. Attaching them was a strip of paper that formed a chain holding the pages together. It was an arresting image that seized my attention.

Then it got even better. It got interactive. When you laid the pages flat, the chain broke.

But then it got worse. Underneath the broken chain was a message: “Ending slave labor is not this easy.” There was a tiny “ILO” logo in the upper right asking you to visit the International Labour Organization’s Web site to find out “how to help.”

I loved the handcuffs. I hated the message so much I blogged my disappointment. (Hat tip to osocio.org blog, formerly Houtlust Blog, for running the ad — that’s where I first saw it.)

Here’s why I hated it: I felt powerless to help because even the ILO admitted it was not easy to do anything about slave labor. How can I have faith that it will possibly overcome the problem? What in this ad makes me believe I could possibly make a difference? Nothing. I just felt weak and world-weary.

What if instead the message said, “You just took the first step to ending slave labor. Now take another one. Visit http://www.ilo.org – .” I would have felt inspired, not tired. I might have donated money or time.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I am not a fan of fear-based, gloom-and-doom messaging. I think it’s a downer; a downer as in diminished donations, dispirited advocates and doubting audiences. Feeling depressed yet? Me too.

That’s my point. In this edition of my forgotten fundamentals column, I want to focus on hope. And not just because my state is flooded with Obama ads — which I happen to think are very good, regardless of your political stripe. I want to focus on hope, inspiration and aspiration because they are the basis of a long-term relationship.

Here’s the problem with fear. It sometimes works — if we get scared into doing something quickly. But over time, our fear is going to erode, so we might not act again. (Think “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”) Or, the fearful, gloom-and-doom approach can backfire. It can make us feel powerless. It can make us feel helpless. It can make us feel a problem is insurmountable, intractable and just plain permanent. It can make us want to run away.

The more drama you give your problem, the more risk you take. If the apocalypse is coming, why bother trying to make change? If you scare with scale, you’ll lose. If you empower with feasible steps to set things right, you’ll motivate — and affect social change.

Environmental campaigns often focus on negative consequences. That’s not all bad — but you need feasible, corrective steps paired with the negative consequences. If you’re going to try to fundraise with melting polar ice caps, you’re going to need to convince people their donations can stop us all from drowning. You need them to believe their actions can change things. You want them to feel hopeful — and good.

This logic doesn’t only apply to a good cause; it also holds true for lingerie. A Journal of Consumer Research study from February covered in The Washington Post found that when people buy gifts at the last minute, they are motivated by fear — specifically, fear of being in the doghouse. The whole experience of going to Victoria’s Secret the night before Valentine’s Day in a desperate shopping spree for your honey is negative, and the doghouse-dodging shoppers in the store don’t tend to get warm, fuzzy feelings about giving or about the brand. By contrast, non-procrastinators aren’t motivated by fear, and they tend to feel happy and loving about their gift experiences — and the brand.

In other words, The Washington Post noted, fear rarely wins people’s hearts.

We should keep this in mind. Scaring people into giving is about as effective as a holdup: Someone will hand over his wallet, but he’s not going to feel good about it or you.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Threaten dire consequences only when there is an immediate, specific and feasible recommendation for remedying them. Show need alongside positive results. Give people a way to channel the emotions you evoke into real change.

That’s what we all want. We want to be able to change what’s wrong. We want to set things right. We want hope that things can be better. We want to aspire to be something more.

The last thing we want to feel is helpless. Remember that, and tap into those human needs as much as you can. Sell, don’t scold. Pair negative consequences of inaction with the uplifting image of action. Show the solution. Convince people that, together, we can handle the challenge, not just hand-wring our way into despair. In other words, break those chains of negativity. We want out of them.

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