NGO communication: fear of speaking undramatically

“Successful fundraising without good communication is impossible.” With this phrase, I usually meet the participants of my training on NGO communication. During my 8 years of experience on the portal, I have encountered the communication of more than 200 non-governmental organizations, I read, edited, and even occasionally rewrote texts of more than 330 different projects, for which today the portal has received over 3 million euros of support. It is quite a considerable field to notice the tendentious formulas of communication successes and failures that determine the outcome of fundraising.

I would like to draw attention to the most prevalent leitmotifs in the communication of NGO, which are so deeply rooted that they have become almost an everyday mantra for communication and fundraising professionals, and in the eyes of the public – clichés that are no longer surprising, they only cause more frustration. Here is a list of things that one should avoid in NGO (especially fundraising) communication.

1. Tragedy. Exaggerated dramatization, telling tragic stories is especially typical to audiovisual communication of NGOs. Nightfall and dark images, elements from peoples’ lives, an increasingly breathtaking narrative, a hopeless soundtrack, and a bit of heroes’ tears – it sounds like a horror thriller, but that’s what a typical video looks like: bringing tears to the viewer’s eyes and encouraging to donate during telemarathons. Unfortunately, after many years of employing the same pattern, it has already become ineffective and manipulative in the eyes of viewers. Constantly observing such communication one gains emotional resilience, so what will need to be communicated then? I would not like to imagine. It is very dangerous to cross the boundary of drama when, instead of raising support for your goal, you will get a negative reaction because, firstly, people feel inside if their feelings are manipulated, secondly, you can create an image that the situation is so tragic that nothing can be done to help and only sadness what is left. Such a phenomenon is also frequent in communication texts – organizations do not avoid using very intense words, e.g. “imprisoned”, “condemned”, “hopeless”, etc., which in their true sense mean nothing but a dead-end situation. Who would want to contribute to your goal if you yourself communicated that it is impossible to achieve it and the people you are helping have no future?

2. Appeal to fear. “You will be old too”, “this can happen to you too”, “no family is protected from this happening to them” – these are NGO ads sending a message; they invite to donate to elderly, ill people, and people in poverty. Although these “warnings” are in fact correct, it is an objectionable tone to use in respect of a person who is optimistic about his/her present/future and who, because of such a situation in his/her life, would be inclined to share kindness with others. Messages that affect fear receptors are more appropriate in social than fundraising ads (which, unfortunately, are still confused not only by NGOs but also by the representatives of the advertising industry) to change the flawed attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of people or their group. Naturally, when attempting to curb drunk driving, driving without wearing belts, or irresponsible disposal of hazardous waste fear-oriented narratives are used if self-awareness in the public is not enough. However, everyone has their fears, and sowing them in fundraising communication, speaking about bad things can happen, not only does not arouse empathy but encourages people to be self-contained. This means – even greater apathy for the problems of surrounding people. 

3. Society is indifferent. Municipal institutions, business companies, government institutions, and the whole society are indifferent – such statements are already vanishing in the communication of the large organizations, but they are still very common in the communication of start-up NGOs. And it doesn’t matter that we ask for help from the same ones we’re talking about, hoping for their reaction. And I can safely say – that reaction will be negative and will in no way lead to the desired result (unless your result would be to say out loud how bad everyone is). You can’t expect a positive reaction and all the more support and encouragement for your organization if you’ve already accused your recipient of the communication or an entire group of people of being indifferent. Yes, you may have encountered indifference in the past, but as you go to talk to your future donors, remind yourself that people are inherently good and willing to help, so help them understand the problem and solution you are working with and let them show you their best side. The attack strategy in the communication of NGOs has never worked for anyone in terms of raising funds.

4. A feeling of guilt is, according to research data, one of the most motivating factors to donate. Many organizations know this and use it in communication to achieve their result. You are indebted to the elderly – a plate of soup, to your country – a tribute, to a neighbor – an outstretched helping hand. You are even more indebt because you live better than the heroes of the stories or you are just guilty of the wrongs done by society. A depressing feeling of guilt can visit a frequent recipient of such communication. But can we afford to promote this feeling so irresponsibly? No – current or future – the donor is automatically responsible for the problems faced by a particular group of people, but he/she can work with you to solve these problems by contributing to the activity of your organization. And he/she is unlikely to do that if he/she feels – at least a little bit – that you’re deliberately trying to cause a feeling of guilt. Rather, on the contrary, he/she will direct their bitterness of dissatisfaction towards you or others. What do we often hear from those who have chosen not to donate – why are the institutions, the organizations, the state not taking care of these disadvantaged or needy people? By encouraging such an approach, we are doing a bear service not only to ourselves but to the entire fundraising sector, as it will be much more difficult to encourage donors affected by such communication to contribute to any goal of support.

Talking about social problems is hard, complex, and sensitive, but that doesn’t mean we have to evoke unpleasant accompanying feelings in order to arouse people’s empathy. NGOs’ fundraising professionals and communication representatives often contradict me by saying “it works”, “we raise more funds”, “in this way we get more reactions”. I ask them “for how long?” Exaggerated dramatization causes a short-term effect – a person closes his/her eyes, donates and flies elsewhere in his/her mind as quickly as possible, and the next time he/she sees your organization’s logo or ad, he/she associates it with a negative feeling. You cannot expect a long-term relationship from such a donor – he/she will only donate when you beg again, and the goal of any professional organization should be to build a loyal relationship with the donor that is mutually pleasing.

Finally, it is worth considering what image of the organization such communication creates in the eyes of your business partners and sponsors. Yes, there are a myriad of companies that will accept a shallowly merciful narrative, but if your partner sees support for you as an investment or wants to co-brand with you, the question will surely arise as to whether I would want my brand to be next to constantly whining, begging and even frightening images?   

So how to talk about social problems then? I always tell organizations during training on communication: you exist not because there is a social problem, but because you have all the knowledge and competence to solve that problem. And that is good news. If there is a solution, we can offer the person/company to contribute and solve this problem together today, which means – to live in a better world tomorrow. This is a positive communication message that every NGO should carry – to focus its attention on what result we can achieve, what impact we are seeking, and to share that ambition with their future donor. Let the donation be accompanied by a good feeling of contributing to something truly significant and the world is brighter as we join forces together for a common goal.

Light is what I wish you all in communication!