Behavioral Science

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.