Harnessing the Psychological Power of Crises for Powerful Asks

In the face of crisis, people can show immense compassion, even to strangers on the other side of the world. The UN estimated that donors pledged $4.6 billion following the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010. Last year, Typhoon Haiyan descended on Southeast Asia, killing thousands and displacing millions. In the days following, individuals gave millions to relief organizations to help those affected.

It is always uplifting to see such an outpouring of goodwill, but the emphatic response donors show following natural disasters makes you wonder, “why does it seem people need a crisis to do good?” Imagine if people were this passionate and generous year-round.

The Case for Crisis

We might gain some insight by checking out some ideas from The Influential Fundraiser, by Bernard Ross and Clare Segal. To help fundraisers create case statements, they offer a model with four different ways to frame a mission. The two characteristics used to differentiate the types are whether the appeal is positive or negative and whether the concern is immediate or in the future. While a cause may fit most naturally in one of these options, they explain that most causes can be adapted to all four.

best ways to frame fundraising asks

Crisis – the goal is to prevent an immediate threat (negative, present)

If we don’t raise $20,000 by the end of the month, our after-school center will close.

Risk – The goal is to prevent a negative outcome in the future (negative, future)

If we don’t offer quality after-school activities and supervision, our community will experience more vandalism and crime.

Opportunity – Acting now can bring about this immediate positive outcome (positive, present)

If we raise the money for pool repairs, the children can swim all summer.

Vision – The goal is to arrive at this positive outcome in the future (positive, future)

If we create a free after-school tutoring center, we can help all local students succeed and graduate high school.

This matrix is a helpful tool in generating case statements and appeals, but fundraisers must then decide which of these presentations to use. Ross and Segal asked experienced fundraisers all over the world which of the four categories is the most powerful for motivating a community. “Most of them wish it could be ‘vision’ (positive future). In practice – from their experience – they know ‘crisis’ (negative present) is normally the strongest.” (56)

As for why the short-term negative appeal is so effective, we can draw on a few principles of psychology and even some research on politics. One advantage for more immediate appeals is that they tap into the desire for instant gratification. Most nonprofits have a long-term mission, be it a world without hunger or the eradication of Polio, but these are huge goals and donors may feel they can’t make a difference with a problem so large.

On the other hand, immediate, tangible projects make a donor feel like their gift has accomplished something. People want progress and they want it now. Smaller goals seem more achievable and attractive to outsiders deciding whether to get involved.

Negativity may be a powerful motivator, but it is also a complex one. Nowhere is this choice more visible than in politics. The problem is that, while voters say they hate attack ads during election season, some research has found these negative messages to be effective in influencing audiences. Even those who believed they were unaffected showed signs of being swayed. Perhaps threatening appeals, whether political or humanitarian, provoke a fight or flight response and induce action.

Campaigns are Steps Toward Your Vision

So your nonprofit has a vision of the future, a better world you are striving to create. But what people respond to is the crisis of the hour. How do you motivate people to invest in your long-term journey?
What you want and what donors respond to may not actually be so far apart. If you think in terms of fundraising campaigns, the two could work very well. Let’s take a look at an example.

Surfers Against Pollution (a fictional nonprofit) wants to keep Southern California beaches clean and reduce existing sources of pollution. Their vision is for their beaches to be free of litter and harmful waste products. This vision might work well for a general fundraising campaign, like an annual gala or 5k run. To create the short-term excitement that motivates many donors, however, they need some more specific goals.

One project SAP wants to complete this year is doubling the number of trash and recycling cans on beaches in San Diego County in time for summer. This can be the basis of a short-term campaign with a tangible result.

“TAKE OUT THE TRASH and Enjoy a CLEAN beach this summer.
Help us purchase 50 new trash cans and 50 recycling cans for San Diego beaches by Memorial Day!”


This campaign has a specific goal that will make an impact, but is still achievable in the near future. It fits into the “opportunity” type of appeal because it is positive (adding more trash cans) and takes place relatively soon (an approaching holiday). Here is another option.


This is what our beach looked like before our big Fall clean up.

Help us purchase 50 new trash cans and 50 recycling cans so we have clean beaches all summer long!”

This campaign has the same specific goal (more trash cans) but fits into the “crisis” category. It shows you an impending negative result that donors must prevent. This shows how you can use the urgency of crisis campaigns to move closer to your vision. It’s also a good reminder that there is more than one way to present a campaign.

In For the Long Haul

It can be frustrating when it feels like some donors only respond to tragedy and spectacle, but sometimes a crisis or specific project can draw someone to a cause they never knew they cared about. This is one reason why following up with donors is so important to the long-term health of your organization. You might think of these campaigns for individual projects as a recruiting tool to build your base of repeat donors. You might be able to get people’s attention with a crisis or opportunity, but it is the strength of your vision that will convince them to become advocates.

Want to Get the Most Out of Your Fundraising Efforts?

Image Credit: Flickr User dotpolka and DVIDSHUB

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