The Science Behind the Art of Fundraising Campaigns

The creativity and ingenuity required to craft a successful fundraising campaign should not be underestimated. In the charity sector we do not have a product or service to supply in exchange for money. Instead we must convince people to part with their hard earned money in support of a cause, be that local, national or international. Undoubtedly, this is a hard sell but is certainly not impossible.

Charity appeals present potential donors with a decision to make, will I or won’t I support this cause? And so, a good foundation for charity appeals is understanding the behavioral science behind how people make decisions.

“We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.” - Antonio Damasio

Thinking, Fast and Slow

People make decisions in one of two modes or systems according to Daniel Kahnemann, author of the groundbreaking book on behavioral psychology and decision making “Thinking, Fast And Slow”.

System 1 is where we make impulsive decisions from instinct and our intuition. These decisions are often made unconsciously, when the person is in ‘autopilot’ and are predominantly driven by emotion. According to Kahnemann, 95% of our decisions are driven by this system.

System 2 is where we make rational decisions. This is when people use problem solving techniques and critical thinking to guide the decision-making process. As much as we like to think that we all make decisions with reason and logic, only 5% of decisions are actually made in this way according to Kahnemann.

Facts and figures have their place and can be an effective way of demonstrating the scale of  the problem that needs to be addressed. However, facts and figures can be cold, overwhelming and target system 2. As Kahnemann said, “thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats, they can do it but they would prefer not to.” It is best to avoid drowning your audience in facts and figures. People will instinctively begin to think about the scale of the problem rather than the difference you are making. Once people’s train of thought  goes off on a tangent you have lost them.

Creatives should demonstrate the human aspect hidden behind the facts and figures and appeal to people’s emotions. Storytelling is a popular and appropriate tool to appeal to the emotional triggers of system 1. Storytelling has been employed in both the for profit and not for profit sector for good reason.

Stories, Emotions & Oxytocin

The neurochemical called oxytocin is produced when we are shown forms of kindness from others or when someone instills trust in us. Furthermore, it motivates us to cooperate with others. Oxytocin does this by boosting our sense of empathy.

Dr. Paul J. Zak conducted tests to see if narratives shot on video would cause the brain to make oxytocin. The study showed that character-driven stories consistently caused the brain to make oxytocin. As Dr. Zak said in the Harvard Business Review when discussing his findings:

“The amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example; donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.”

Dr. Zak’s research discovered that in order to motivate people to help others through a narrative, the story must first grab and sustain attention. This is done by creating tension. His lab found that “If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers will come to share the emotions of the characters in it.” Tension in this instance is showing the problem or need that is to be addressed in a compelling narrative.

From Empathy to Action

Converting the feeling of empathy into an action is easier said than done. Luckily, The Fogg Behavior Model was developed to help us to understand the process of converting emotions into actions. The model shows that three elements must converge at the same time for a behavior to occur: Behavior = Motivation x Ability x Prompt

Fogg Behavior Model -- 2019.jpeg

Motivation - in order to motivate the sought after behavior one needs to stand out and be noticed. This is why we should target system 1 and people’s emotions through a compelling story or narrative. If successful, this will release oxytocin and boost people’s sense of empathy.

Ability - Be widely available, easy to understand and simple to buy, or in our case, support financially. Having already succeeded in getting people to empathise with your appeal it is important to not make the person jump through a number of hoops. The more hoops they  must jump through, the more will fall off. This is one of the reasons why Like Charity’s Text-To-Donate service has been so successful. A text of one word to an easily recalled keyword is all it takes for a potential donor to become a supporter. And better still, Like Charity’s new Recurring Text-To-Donate service has made it incredibly easy for potential donors to support your cause on a continuous basis.

A multi-stepped process has been reduced to a single text message of a single word.

Prompt - also known as a call-to-action - As the saying goes, if you don’t ask, you won’t get. No need to be discreet here, tell the people what you need and explicitly ask for their support.

People make hundreds of decisions everyday. Some are significant and others trivial. As fundraisers we are presenting people with another decision to make within their hectic day, will I support this cause? Because of this it is important that we all have a basic understanding of the behavioral science behind decision making and continuously improve our understanding of the field.

Social Media Campaigns That Rise Above

In the fast-paced and highly saturated world of social media, it can be difficult to establish online presence and awareness. Ideal content will attract not only attention but rewarding engagement and interaction. Establishing an online presence is only the first step for companies. Next they must master the skill of standing out from their competitors, and avoid being drowned out by the high traffic nature of social media. This begs the question: how does one create a unique voice on social media? In the world of constant content, how do you create the one campaign that catches attention? The following are just a few examples of some unique and innovative ideas in recent social media campaigns.


In February, Worldwide Breast Cancer launched a highly successful campaign that summarizes the importance of self check-ups, recognizing warning signs, and other important information about breast cancer as translated through lemons. The campaign is ingenious for a few reasons: it is simple, easy to understand, and it manages to summarize a large amount of crucial information into a basic and easily digestible format. It created a catchy campaign name and concept, managed to double not only as awareness but also as incentive to donate to Worldwide Breast Cancer, and started a conversation and community around the subject. The campaign perfectly strikes the balance between serious and lighthearted. Through just three Facebook posts, the campaign reached 7.3 million people.


This viral sensation was started not by an organization, but by just one person: twenty-eight year old Kat Selwyn Layton. After the passing of mental health advocate Carrie Fisher, Layton was inspired to speak out more publicly in her own life about mental illness and wanted to encourage others to do the same.  She created highly shareable online badges that featured all variations of mental illnesses and conditions. The badge featured the campaign name #EndTheStigma, with other hashtags of support such as #1in5, bringing awareness to the statistic that one in five American adults are living with a mental illness. This initiative is brilliant, as it takes an extremely direct approach. The simple campaign works towards dealing with shame, breaking silence around misunderstood or marginalized illnesses and creating a highly accessible and positive online mental health movement. The badges have been shared over 40 000 times on Facebook alone.


Dublin Simon, a homeless charity in Dublin Ireland runs an awareness campaign on the day of the summer solstice, also known as the longest day of the year. The campaign centered around awareness for the homeless and a call to action to donate, simply through the message of "Everyday feels like the longest day of the year for those who are homeless". This campaign is extremely clever due to its ability to link a day you may otherwise think little of to its mission, and providing incentive to donate and get people thinking about its simple, but highly effective and shareable message.


Seventeen of the animal emojis found on smartphone keyboards were highlighted as endangered by World Wildlife Fund, and the organization took to Twitter as an opportunity to raise awareness and generate donations. For every retweet or tweet of one of these endangered species, €0.10 was donated to WWF for awareness and conservation efforts. Strategically launched on World Endangered Species Day, this campaign is brilliant in that it could be re-run, with an updated list of endangered species that need help the following year. It is appealing to all ages, easy to get involved in, and makes great use of the easily understood and communicated tool and trend of emojis. As well, it gives an opportunity to give a visual for the endangered animal in an endearing way. The campaign generated over a million uses of the hashtag #Endangered Emoji, and thousands of followers gained to the WWF Twitter account.

These campaigns show how they were able to reach a larger audience and find success by taking unique approaches to their messages of awareness. Creating highly shareable content that can either appeal or at least interest a wide variety of people is a huge victory. When content online becomes viral, it becomes powerful.