I feel manipulated!

I wake up on Sunday mornings, brew a pot of coffee and tune into my favorite Sunday morning news shows like The Chris Matthews Show and Meet the Press. However, this last Sunday morning I woke up to a parade of coverage focusing exclusively on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. So, I sat on my couch all morning, sipping coffee and fought back the tears and horrible memories.

Like most Americans, I have vivid memories of those difficult days. I can tell you exactly where I was when the first news broke. I can give you a blow-by-blow accounting of my day. I couldn’t stop watching the news coverage in the weeks after Sept. 11th, and those videos of the planes crashing into the towers and people wandering around the New York streets with pictures of their fallen loved ones are just haunting. In fact, I am getting teary right now typing about it, and I have goosebumps on my arms. UGH!

So, as I watched television on Sunday morning, I found myself getting angry whenever a network would cut away from their coverage and some company’s commercial exploited 9-11  as an opportunity to sell their product. They masterfully pulled at my heart-strings and tapped into raw emotions all in the name of consumerism. Check out this Budweiser commercial to see what I mean.

Unfortunately, the beer company wasn’t the only ones doing it. Stephen Colbert did a nice job nailing a number of these culprits. Click here to check-out his comedic report.

You might be asking right about now: “What does this have anything to do with non-profit organizations, fundraising or donors?”

As I processed my thoughts and feelings in the wake of Sunday’s emotional coverage, I came to two very strong conclusions.

  1. This kind of marketing is manipulative, feels really yucky and makes me not want to buy those products.
  2. Non-profit organizations sometimes do the same kind of thing.

What?!?! Huh?!?! Where did THAT come from?

Come on! You know what I mean:

  • Please sir . . . won’t you please make a contribution? Without YOUR support we will have to close our doors and throw those kids out onto the street.
  • Please ma’am . . . for just the cost of that “Triple Venti Skinny Cinnamon Dulce Latte” you can feed a village of starving people for a day.”
  • Please make a donation today to remember the 9-11 victims, which will allow our organization to invest in a “get out the vote” effort. (This really was a fundraising pitch. Don’t believe me? Click here!)

I know, I know . . . appealing to people’s emotions is very effective and is considered a best practice for all good fundraising and marketing campaigns. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am NOT saying that we need to strip the emotion out of our messaging, but I am saying that we need to be very careful about not crossing that line and using FEAR to motivate donors.

Knowing where that emotional line is can be difficult and different when deal with individual donors. For example, my partner detests the fundraising commercials for the ASPCA, and he swears that he will never give to that charity because he feels manipulated by them.

So, how can you and your agency know where that line is? While it is a tough question that probably doesn’t have a good answer, you better figure it out if you’re committed to a donor-centered fundraising paradigm.

The one suggestion I can offer is . . .  get your donors engaged in the process. Before sending out an emotional mail appeal (or for that matter any piece aimed at cultivation, solicitation or stewardship), what would be so wrong will convening a donor focus group to review the package and provide feedback?

What are your thoughts? What does your organization do to minimize the possibility of tripping over your donors’ emotional-point-of-no-return? What is the most manipulative thing you’ve ever seen a non-profit organization do? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts because we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC


  1. I never thought of the commercials that way until I read this…. But I’m not sure I agree. I feel many are honoring the day, the firefighters, the families… They bring back the memories. They make me cry too….yes I do cry at commercials. But after reading your interpretation I see your point also. Although I dont want to go out and buy the products I do actually look up to see who made the commercial. Still think it’s more honor than sales pitch but thats probably just me being a bit of a sucker. BUT. I agree on the ASPCA and can’t even watch those commercials or listen to Sara Mclachlan!!!!!

    1. Thanks for weighing-in Amy. I don’t think you’re a sucker, and I think we’re agreeing on how emotional those commercials and fundraising campaigns are. You’re last comment on ASPCA affirms my belief that there is a line that charities need to be careful of not tripping over. Of course, the tough part is that it seems to be different for everyone.

      Did you click on the Stephen Colbert link that I embedded in today’s blog post? If not, I encourage you to do so and I’d love to talk to you more after you do so.

  2. Erik, have faith in your fellow human beings. There is a fundraiser on each street corner, quietly supporting a cause in which they believe. I agree with you – the aggressive tack by some organisations is repulsive, especially if the ploy is to make a potential donor feel somehow guilty. YOU are in control; just say yes or no. If you don’t like the way a particular organisation runs its campaign – COMPLAIN! If enough of us do that then maybe they’ll change their unsavoury methods. To insult the memory of those poor people by using it as a marketing tool is unforgiveable.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think you raise an amazing point in that “donors vote with their feet (or shall I say their pocketbooks)!!!” However, not writing that check isn’t enough. Donors should get vocal with charities that step over that emotional line and start using fear and manipulation to solicit funding. Bottling up those opinions and putting the checkbook away isn’t enough.

      I should have more faith. Thanks again for a great comment!

  3. The problem is Erik, that it is so easy to obtain charitable status and it is poorly regulated. Some operate by the rules, others sail close to the mark. The apparently simple gift of helping someone in need has been almost lost in the murky depths of corporate greed, business plans and campaign strategies where 80% of the donation pool can be legally used for ‘administrative purposes’ This has made charitable giving a business opportunity, forcing many much-loved and high profile charities to adopt similar methods to slick cowboys in order to compete. Take the following famous quotes:

    We make a living by what we get

    We make a life by what we give

    Winston Spencer Churchill

    If you knew what I know about the power of giving

    You would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way


    This is emotional stuff; simple and powerful words which have motivated millions over time.

    In my opinion the use of fear and manipulation should be illegal.

    My pet subject is how to be a good volunteer for charities and according potential donors the respect and dignity that they are entitled to. This means – not in your face, send you on a guilt trip type fundraising – I would prefer to lose many dollars or pounds during a campaign just to explain what my charity is all about. If the potential donor agrees with what I’m doing and can relate to the charity then chances are that a donation may be given and the message getting broadcast.


    1. I agree with so much of what you’re saying. However, I have recently become less certain about the idea of how much is too much for a NFP to spend on administrative costs + fundraising costs. While I generally agree with what you’re saying, I’ve also heard some compelling stories as to why a set standard is hard to establish. I am open to anyone’s thoughts on this matter. I always thought that NFPs that spend more than 25% of their funds on admin AND fundraising costs were outside of the norm (I think I got this from the United Way). However, the Better Business Bureau says 33% is OK. I just don’t know what the right number is or even if there is one. I suspect that this issue needs to be put to the “smell test” on a case-by-case basis. Anyone out there have an answer?

  4. An interesting discussion is worth comment. I believe that it’s best to write extra on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject however typically people are not sufficient to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.