‘How far is too far’ The rights and wrongs of ‘using’ emotion in fundraising

By Jon Dean and Rachel Wood.

How far should charities go in shocking the public in order to meet their fundraising targets? In 2014, a fundraising campaign for research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) caused a stir with the stark strapline ‘I wish my son had cancer’. The campaign featured Alex Smith holding his young son Harrison, who had been diagnosed with DMD, one of the biggest genetic killers of children on the planet.

When so many people’s lives are horrifically affected by cancer, was Smith’s desire for his son to suffer from a well-known and treatable disease, rather than a lesser known and terminal one, offensive? And how far should charities go to elicit emotions from potential donors? These questions are frequently discussed in fundraising circles, and our new research, published in the International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, seeks to find out how people working in the voluntary sector deal with these complex issues.

We found that fundraisers are well-aware of the power of emotionally stimulating adverts – ‘They work, it’s that simple,’ said one – but the impact of them is hard to control. For example, what is triggering for one person, may leave another cold. Many spoke of the fundraising journey, of highlighting a problem, perhaps quite starkly, but then offering a positive solution, the donor being able to help. ‘I think “Look at what we could do together” or, “Look at the difference you can make by supporting”, is a better, positive narrative around it,’ said one policy officer for a large youth charity.

However, the reduction in core government funding, alongside an increase in need due to tighter living standards, means that charities are forced to compete for donations which means that fundraisers often resort to using guilt and sympathy to cut through the chorus of appeals for help.

Scandals surrounding financial mismanagement and pushy fundraising approaches have also meant that trust in UK charities has, in some analyses, dipped in recent years. Interviewees saw this scenario as larger charities’ behaviour worsening the environment for smaller ones to operate in. As the Chief Executive of an addiction support organisation in Sheffield stated:  ‘I think there’s been a lot of damage done to donations, just from the big charities, the way they’ve behaved.’

Fundraisers struggle on a day-to-day basis with these ethical quandaries. Many feel that guilt-tripping the public is unacceptable, but that they are unsure of what else to do:  ‘I don’t know how else they would get the money’, said one interviewee. With internal organisational pressure from colleagues to raise more and more donations, but without demeaning beneficiaries or guilt-tripping the public, our research supports fundraising expert Ian MacQuillan’s argument that ethical fundraising involves a search for balance, between the duty to solicit funds on behalf of beneficiaries, with the right of the donor not to be subjected to undue pressure to donate. This search for such a delicate balance continues to be a daily part of fundraising.


“You can try to press different emotional buttons”: The conflicts and strategies of eliciting emotions for fundraisers by Jon Dean (Sheffield Hallam University) and Rachel Wood (University of Chester) is published now. You can access the research here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s