I recently saw a charity campaign by Age Concern in New Zealand. My first instinct was negative because it depicted a lonely looking older fellow who looked more than a little depressed. Sure it showed a problem, but the solution was not clear and I was not sure how I felt about old people being depicted in this way and if this would generate the type of action they were after, but mostly my reaction was because it just looked really depressing.


 

 
Then I began to wonder. Was it a successful campaign. It got a reaction after all, but of course advertising is more than reaction, it is action, and I was interested to know if adverts of this type were more affective at changing behavior and raising money for fundraising campaigns.

In particular I decided I wanted to investigate whether positive or negative advertising were more effective at engaging audiences and driving action than advertising that espoused shock for something that showed the positive impacts of charity work, but as I read further I came to see that the use of shock advertising had quite different and far reaching implications for nonprofits.

There is always the temptation for charities working on tough causes to reach for shock advertising to generate awareness and donations. The idea being that people give to charities because they are affected by tragedy and sadness and horror, and that this motivates people to take action. After all donations are a personal matter involving emotions and value judgements. We donate because we want to change the world in some way because there are horrors in the world, there are terrible things happening all the time, and we respond to people who need out help, and the more terrible the situation the more we want to help.

 

 

I myself recently responded in this way. I had just got half way through reading a fantastic biography by Ishmael Beah (an amazing book called a long way gone that I would recommend that anyone interested in this problem should read) that recounts his experiences of fleeing from the rebel army in Uganda and how he became one of the estimated 300,000 children who were abducted and forced to become a child soldier. It was so visceral in its recounting of the horrors that he witnessed (how often is it the little details, so personal, that really hit home) and the terrible acts he was forced to commit that I decided to start a regular giving program with Invisible Children who are working to end the abduction and forced recruitment of children by the rebel army in Uganda.

But I guess this raises another question around negative advertising, one of authenticity. I decided to support Invisible Children because of the personal story I had read and the very real problem that had been recounted. As more and more charities have begun and continue to use negative advertising, donors are increasingly likely to reject this type of advertising because they feel that their emotions are being manipulated, that the campaign is not authentic.

 

While shock adverting may be successful at standing out and gaining public attention for a cause in the short term, in the long run they may face the risk of damaging their reputation and losing trust.

I believe that there is no need to fabricate or embellish the realities we face.The work we are involved in is often times dramatic. We can still create reach people, it just requires being creative and using truth to surprise people instead of manipulating people with sensationalist imagery that lacks authenticity.

 

So many times, as I have begun to read about the work of a charity I have recently discovered, or an issue that I have recently become aware of, I find myself astounded by some unexpectedly truth, and I have been forced to see another aspect of the world that I was previously unaware of. There is so much that remains out of view, so many problems that we remain separated from by a lack of public discourse, and this provides opportunities for nonprofits deliver communications that have impact, impact because they surprise us with truth, truth that is often unpalatable and unspoken.

But we need not dwell on horror to reach people, to inspire people. The alternative to using negative advertising to provoke the public to donate and get involved, is to create campaigns that spark positive emotions in people such as hope, compassion and generosity.

 

 

This can certainly create powerful emotions. When we hear survival stories, stories of everyday heroes who have overcome insurmountable odds I certainly feel some awe about what they have experienced, about the journey they have made, and I think that can motivate people because we suddenly feel a connection to that person, to their experience.
How do you feel about negative charity campaigns?

  • DebbyBruck

    Dear Daniel ~ A thoughtful and emotional review. Every day our inbox fills with these tragic stories from near and far. If you have registered for any of the petition websites, they come every day. It breaks our hearts to hear what people have to endure. On the other hand, many have overcome the hardships and challenges, becoming contributors for good works in this generation and the next. Blessings, Debby

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  • anon

    You surprise me with your decision to contribute to Invisible Children. It’s already been well documented in the press that they are not transparent, they do not have an independent board, and they spend too much on compensation compared to their income and amount spent on their mission. There are many, many other non-profits working in that part of the world operating ethically and responsibly to achieve their mission and be good stewards of their donors’ contributions.

    • I have invited Invisible Children to respond as they are better placed to comment on these points.

      I would be interested in learning about the other charities that you would recommend in that region as I want to do some further fundraising to support people in Uganda and I am always interested in learning about charities.

    • I spoke to Invisible Children and they asked me to share this information. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this.

      81.48% of expenses went to programs – you can read their annual report here http://invisiblechildren.com/financials/

      They have a very high score from Charity Navigator too. This is worth looking at http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=12429#.Uoq3N36yHx5

    • Noelle

      Thanks Daniel for letting us respond to this.

      As a registered non-profit in the US we are held to financial transparency requirements. We are required to post an account of every dollar in and out, and we do that every year for all the world to see, whenever they want (invisiblechildren.com/financials). These financial documents also are required to be audited by a 3rd party financial firm to verify that the documents are accurate. All our audited financials can be reviewed at the link above.

      I think what this person is referring to is that some press have reported that all of our donations are not spent on African based programs, that is true. We are so proud of our Media and Mobilization (US based) programs that have supported an end to the conflict just as much as the Protection and Recovery (Africa Based) programs. Our organization was built to support these four parts that contribute to the permanent end of this conflict 1) Media 2) Mobilization 3) Protection 4) Recovery.

      We stand behind every dollar we spend. And have helped contribute to to an 87% reduction in LRA killings in the last 2 years.

      I hope this helps clear things up and would love to give more details if need be. Thanks.

      Noelle West
      Staff – Invisible Children

      • Thanks for respoinding to this. I too believe that raising awareness of the issues through the media is important and as a donor I support this approach. Many of the problems in the world require the involvement and the commitment of our governments to end global issues hence why this is so important.
        When people like myself decide to support a charity we tend to follow a cause that we care about and then resaearch what a charity is doing to change this. I was convinced by what I personally read and the information I have receieved about their work since has meant that I am liekly to continue to support them for some time

  • Marquita Herald

    Thought provoking article Daniel. I must say that personally I do not respond well to requests based on shock value. I’m well read and aware of what’s going on in the world, but I also have a history of volunteering and serving on nonprofit boards so I never allow my emotions to override my good sense when it comes to investigating organizations before supporting their cause. I’m also a strong believer in grass roots movements so I tend to focus on opportunities to support local nonprofits because I prefer the hands-on approach to making a difference.