Charity fundraisers are learning to accentuate the positive

Does good or bad news encourage donations?

Image: David Humphries @ Monster

In the light of gloom-ridden messages in many charity campaigns, you might assume that it’s bad news that encourages donations, but a recent initiative by the UK’s Prostate Cancer Charity suggests otherwise. Earlier this year it sent letters to 33,000 supporters – half mentioned the recession, its expected impact on donations and the effect this might have on its work; the rest took an affirmative approach, concentrating on its achievements. The donations prompted by higher-level donors who received the upbeat letter were worth on average 45 per cent more than those who got the negative one.

It shouldn’t have been surprising. Back in the mid-1980s, Bob Geldof was using the term “compassion fatigue” to describe how too much emphasis on suffering could backfire: if you presented famine in Africa as insoluble, you ran the risk that people would stop supporting it as a cause. More recently, US psychologist Paul Slovic has used the expression “psychic numbing” in a paper on genocide to explain how stories that focus on a single individual’s suffering are likely to make a more profound impression than those focusing on mass atrocity. Mother Teresa took the same view: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”


So there’s a lot to be said for accentuating the positive when fundraising. A new report, Tomorrow’s Philanthropist, commissioned by Barclays Wealth in collaboration with Ledbury Research, whose mission is “helping brands to understand and reach the wealthy”, coincided with reports that charity investments had risen by an estimated 6.4 per cent in the second quarter of this year, suggesting a cautiously optimistic outlook for philanthropy, as long as donors remain confident their money is making a difference. Indeed, if the 500 Britons and Americans interviewed – all with investable assets of at least £0.5m – are typical, then one in four “entrepreneurs and younger high-net-worth individuals are actually increasing their donations as a result of the downturn”.

“We shouldn’t under­estimate donors,” says Beth Breeze, a researcher at the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, “because the panic pervading the charity sector is not mirrored in the donor community.” That said, the report suggests that philanthropists are altering their fields of interest. It seems that the arts are no longer a modish cause – despite the fact that in the UK individual giving to cultural organisations exceeded £382m in 2007/08, accounting for 13 per cent of their income (according to the consultancy Arts & Business) – and that they are likely to suffer swingeing cuts in public subsidy in the next spending review. The prognosis for religious or animal charities was unfavourable too. But organisations concerned with health and medical issues, children, the environment and disaster relief seem to have little to fear when it comes to support from wealthy individuals.


However life-enhancing and culturally significant, perhaps the arts are deemed too parochial. Today’s philanthropists, it seems – especially the under-35s – see themselves as “global citizens, set to transform the nature of philanthropy through applying their considerable financial and intellectual resources to solve the global problems of our age”. A noble ambition – as long as they don’t become psychically numbed by the scale of the challenges they face in raising the bar so high.