It’s that time of year when even for-profit companies focus on non-profit giving. For instance, some merchants add an option for charitable giving to their Web sites, or set aside a percentage of holiday sales for a cause. So, what’s the best way to get customers to give to a public service such as the Red Cross this time of year? Recent research has a rather surprising answer: nix the feel-good approach.

Researchers studied reams of data from a public television station seeking member support over the course of two years. They found that the most effective fundraising appeals combined two rather unflattering messages:

It’s not about benefiting you—it’s about helping everybody else (other-benefit appeals).
Something bad will happen if you don’t contribute (negative-emotion appeals).

The appeal that said: contribute to the betterment of the community, or else bad things will ensue and you will feel guilt and shame, actually got the most positive response in terms of call-in donations.

Why? With a service like PBS or the Red Cross, donors know they’ll receive its benefits whether they give or not. Therefore, giving based on benefits becomes nothing more than a transaction. When the focus shifts to helping others, however, it brings back the concept of giving. Add a pinch of guilt/shame for motivation, and voila!

Source: An Empathy-Helping Perspective on Consumers’ Responses to Fund-Raising Appeals. Robert J. Fisher, Mark Vandenbosch, Kersi D. Antia.