Why not to use shame to raise small-dollar donations — and what to do instead

A stylized paper airplane in front of a gray brick wall, Photo by Daria Nepriakhina from Unsplash

Shame does not lead to long-term, sustained revenue from loyal donors. 

As a nonprofit leader, you know that, of course. You believe the most effective messaging will tie your mission in with your organization’s needs in a clear way that shows your supporters how they can help invest in the positive impact you’ll have in their communities. You know that shaming people to give more isn’t a good idea — strategically or ethically — and you don’t do it on purpose. But tell me if appeals like this sound familiar to you: 

For the cost of one Starbucks coffee (or McDonalds hamburger, or slice of avocado toast) per week, you could help support a family of five (or a shelter dog, or a hungry child). 

If every member increases their donation by just $10 per month (or 25%), we can keep the lights on.

Relate Back to Your Mission

It’s important to find examples and language that will resonate emotionally with the people who care about your mission. However, some fundraisers see the strategy of tying amounts in with their mission and take a turn, using a parallel strategy to shame donors into giving. The most recognizable example of this tactic is the commercials that appear during daytime and late-night television, complete with heartbreaking musical scores and toll free numbers viewers can call to make an instant commitment. 

This approach is compelling because the emotional impact is visceral. The implication is that the person absorbing the messaging isn’t doing their share. Their selfish Starbucks habit is causing real harm in the world by diverting their funds to an unworthy cause: their own enjoyment. If every member increases their donation by $10, their member organization will avert disaster, even if that $10 is heading off the donor’s own disaster. 

The idea is that if more supporters could just give a little more, that they could all share the load. The unspoken message is that people — not major donors, but people with less money to give — aren’t giving enough because they’re selfish. This kind of shame-based message strategically refuses to shame those who already contribute richly to the cause, focusing squarely on supporters with less money to give. This framing ignores the fact that the people who have the least amount of discretionary income to give still provide financial support to those in need — more generously than the wealthy do. There is a saying in many mutual aid and artist communities that use crowdfunding as a survival technique that members just pass the same crumpled up twenty-dollar bill back and forth to each other. Veterans at VFW posts pass around a donation jar when members need medical care or holiday support. People can and do find ways to support each other that they can afford.

Be Mindful of Emotional Impact

While shaming a potential donor might get an initial donation, building up negative emotions doesn’t have the same resonance as working with them to build a positive future. And while they might be willing to give ten or more dollars a month initially, as money continues to get tighter, funds a donor associates with negative emotion will be the first to be cut. 

It can be easy to fall back on shaming language, especially when it’s easy to believe that the donors you’re appealing to have a lot of things in common with you, or your board members, or your volunteers. It’s also easy to worry about asking your largest donors to give more because “they’re already giving so much.” Someone who gives $10,000, or $20,000, or even more seems to be stretching themselves much more than someone who gives $25 per month, at least on paper. 

The Importance of Perspective

There is one key difference between these two types of donors. People who give large gifts are often receiving a tax break. That money may be coming out of a retirement or business account before a donor even has a chance to miss it, and in exchange they’re receiving tax breaks that ultimately benefit their bottom line. At a meeting recently, I heard a major donor say in wonder, “It’s all just taken care of for us. We don’t have to do anything!” 

People giving $25 per month, by contrast, are generally taking that money out of the budget they pull from every month for their expenses. Even if they have a charity budget item, that $25 does represent a sacrifice, whether it’s money that would have gone into savings or would have paid for a dinner out of the house. 

This is why I always recommend that nonprofits focus on messaging that applies directly to their mission and impact, with no editorializing on how an amount could replace a fast food habit or how it’s a trivial amount of money. Instead, communicate the true cost of the programs your donors care about and how much is needed. It’s a similar message, but it works by appealing to the good even small amounts of money can do. Look:

$5 per week supports a child with the supplies they need to attend religious school. 

We need to increase donations by 25% to cover our $20,000 shortfall. We would love to discuss what this could mean for your personal giving this year. 

Let the numbers related to impact speak for themselves. The more you focus on how much your donors are falling short, the more likely they are to look for other avenues for creating a positive impact. 

by Wendy Bolm, CommitChange Product Lead