Young woman with short blonde hair in a braid holding a cat. The woman is wearing work gloves and the background is of an animal shelter. Text over the image says "Head vs Heart Marketing: Which One Wins With Your Donors?"

Head vs. Heart Marketing: Which One Wins With Your Donors?

Are you emotional or rational? Creative or analytical? Visual or systematic?

I would tend to say I’m more right-brained. I process information best visually. Give me a Trello board or flow chart over an Excel doc any day. And when it comes to marketing, well, let’s just say the dog food commercial in the Super Bowl may have gotten to me (just a little bit).

The Farmer’s Dog brand dog food definitely pulled on the heartstrings. When it comes to your donor marketing where is your focus? On the head or the heart?

Marketing to Donors’ Hearts

Appealing to a donor’s heart is an emotional approach that aims to create a connection and evoke action-inducing feelings such as empathy, compassion, belonging, nostalgia and altruism.

This type of marketing appeals to the right side of the brain responsible for emotional intelligence, creativity, storytelling and imagination.

Why It Works

  • Emotional connection: When you appeal to a donor’s heart, you can create a deep emotional connection with your organization and its mission. This connection can result in increased engagement, loyalty and long-term support.
  • Easy to understand: Emotional appeals leave a lasting impression without a lot of analysis. Unlike rational appeals, they are generally straightforward and easy to grasp.
  • Elicits action: When presented with an emotional appeal, donors are more likely to respond quickly, compelled to act in the moment.

Why It May Not

  • Lack of data: Emotional appeals are often based on stories, which may lack the data and facts to support the effectiveness of your organization’s work that some people seek.
  • Short-lived impact: Emotional appeals can result in support, but without providing evidence of the effectiveness of your organization’s work (and good stewardship), the donation may be one-and-done.

How To Do It

  • Tell a compelling story that showcases the impact your nonprofit is making. Show how real people (places, causes, animals) are already benefiting from your organization and show them how they can be a part of it.
  • Create a sense of nostalgia for your supporters by reminding them of their ties to your organization.
  • Invite participation. Ask your supporters to tell you how your organization has impacted their lives. Share their responses.

Column 1: Screenshot of an article written by ChildServe about two young girls. Three pictures of the kids smiling are used throughout the article demonstrating their progress with the program.
ChildServe introduces us to five-year-old sisters who have autism spectrum disorder. We learn how their lives have changed drastically with the help of the services provided by the center. (Click image to enlarge.)
Column 2: Screenshot from Miami University article about two alumni who met through the Miami University Marching band. An image of campus and of the marching band are featured in the article.
Miami University used the power of nostalgia, sharing the story of two alumni who named the foundation as the beneficiary of an IRA to support students participating in one of their fondest activities in college—marching band. (Click image to enlarge.)
Column 3: Example of a mailer from Sierra Club. Featured image of lush green mountainside.
The Sierra Club invited their supporters to share their reasons for supporting the nonprofit. A reply device and prepaid envelope were included making it easy for readers to respond. (Click image to enlarge.)

Marketing to Donors’ Heads

Appealing to a donor’s head is a rational approach focusing on logic, facts and data to persuade donors to support your cause.

Donors who respond best to this type of marketing tend to use the left side of the brain in decision-making. This side is responsible for functions such as an inclination toward realism, facts, details, analytics and objective thinking.

Presenting your nonprofit’s achievements and impact with data and statistics helps demonstrate the effectiveness of your work.

Why It Works

  • Evidence-based: Providing hard evidence of the effectiveness of your organization’s work helps build credibility and trust. The annual Donor Trust Report tells us that 63% of Americans rate the importance of trusting a charity before giving as essential, with only 19% saying they highly trust charities.
  • Long-term impact: Appeals to donors’ heads can result in long-term support, as donors are more likely to support organizations with a proven track record of success.
  • Appeals to a different type of donor: Some donors prefer a more rational approach and might be skeptical of emotional appeals.

Why It May Not

  • Lack of connection: Logical messaging often leaves out the emotional element resulting in a lack of connection.
  • Hard to understand: This type of messaging can be more challenging to process, especially for those unfamiliar with the data or jargon used by your nonprofit.
  • Not always immediate: Persuading donors to support your cause with data can delay response, as donors may take additional time to review the results.

How To Do It

  • Present your nonprofit’s achievements and future goals with data and statistics.
  • Survey your donors to find out the types of information they want to know about. Share the survey data with responders.
  • Make it clear where their donations go and the impact they make.

Column 1: Article from Sierra Club. Primarily text with image of wind turbines featured on the second page.
Sierra Club provided its readers with a detailed article on what they have accomplished so far with their support. They also pull out stats to highlight along the bottom for easy consumption. (Click image to enlarge.)
Column 2: Page of statistics from CARE. Image included at bottom of page is of two African children.
CARE surveyed their supporters to ask which programs they are most interested in and to learn about the reasons behind their support. They shared the results with survey respondents. (Click image to enlarge.)
Column 3: All text document with details of spending.
MemorialCare provided a summary of their donations for the year, including where the money went and what it was used for. (Click image to enlarge.)

Which One Wins?

Both emotional and rational appeals have their place. Appeals to donors’ hearts can create an emotional connection but may lack data the data donors want. Appeals to donors’ heads can provide evidence of effectiveness but may fail to make a meaningful connection.

A balanced approach often works best. A recent study tested the effects of different types of appeals (emotional-only, rational-only, emotional-first combined with rational, and rational-first combined with emotional) on participants’ willingness to donate to children living in poverty. The result: both emotional and rational appeals had a significantly positive impact on charitable giving. The combined rational-first appeal performed best, but only slightly better than the emotional-only appeal, followed closely by the combined emotional-first appeal.

Of course, determining the marketing messaging you employ should be informed first by your supporter base. You know your donors best. Depending on your mission, you may find your donors tend to be particularly influenced by emotion or by statistics.

The best news? Simply asking for a donation, no matter the messaging, will garner support. A study by Dutch scholars Rene Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking found that 85% of respondents said the reason they gave was simply because someone asked them.

Below is an example of a nonprofit that did a fantastic job of blending emotional and rational messaging in their planned giving marketing. (Click images to enlarge.)

Column 1: Typed letter from BrightFocus Foundation.
Head & Heart Combined: In its cover letter to supporters of Alzheimer’s Research, BrightFocus Foundation employed both emotional and rational messaging. Stats about donations raised, grants given and the disease itself are provided. Other language touches the heart, teasing a story about a researcher whose grandmother suffered from the disease. It also invites readers to get involved by asking them to send in the story of why they support the nonprofit.
Column 2: Article from BrightFocus Foundation. Top image features a grandfather holding his grandson. Text on top says "Lasting Legacies" with the BrightFocus logo. 
Small image inside the article shows Dr. Igarshi with his grandmother.
Heart Marketing: Here we learn about Dr. Igarshi, an assistant professor who leads a research team studying Alzheimer’s and memory. He was inspired to find a cure for the disease when his grandmother was diagnosed with it at age 79.

Column 1: Promotional piece from BrightFocus with images of timers, glasses, and people that relate to the statistics on the page.
Head Marketing: This page is focused on statistics around the diseases that BrightFocus Foundation funds and the reach it has around the world.

Heart Marketing: The bottom call to action uses emotional language to prompt the reader to respond.
Column 2: Image in BrightFocus article features an Asian couple in their 60s-70s smiling at each other and laughing.
Head Marketing: For those who want facts, the benefits and logistics of giving are clearly laid out in two articles.

Heart Marketing: For those who respond to emotion, the article tells them how their gift can make a difference using language like ensure, critical, after you’re gone and lasting difference to elicit emotion and action.

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