When you are shaping your nonprofit’s messages, whether at a strategic (branding) or campaign level, what is your focus? Are you zeroing in on solving a problem, or are you presenting a possibility to pursue? What approach works best when it comes to nonprofit messaging?

It seems the experts are divided and the research is not totally clear.


Fear changes behaviours and attitudes…but sometimes in the wrong way

For example, according to a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, fear appeals can have a positive effect on certain one-time-only health behaviours, such as screening.



On the other hand, researchers at the National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia have argued that certain fear-based campaigns may have increased drug use.

And in a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, researchers discovered that fear-based, doomsday messaging about global warming increased skepticism, while those receiving positive messages focused on potential solutions were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and science’s ability to solve the problem.


Supporters could use a little positivity

And what about when it comes to rallying supporters to your cause? What works?

In an article for the Huffington Post, Jody Steinhauer suggests that the volume of fear- and guilt-based messages coming from nonprofits are numbing donors to their effects, and points to the effectiveness of a more hope- and possibilities-based video example from the CIBC Run for the Cure:




And in her blog post, Writing Appeal Letters that Inspire Action, Linsey Salmony suggests weaving in guilt, fear AND exclusivity, while making a positive, emotional connection.

A framework focused on hope and possibility is attractive because it aligns with the idea of communicating results and impact, telling compelling stories and creating positive associations with your organization’s cause, brand and vision.

To illustrate that point, here’s a video from CoorDown, developed for World Down Syndrome Day, coming up on March 21 (discovered via Osocio).



What works for your nonprofit? Your community?

Do you shape nonprofit messages with a focus on the positive/the possibilities? Or do you use fear or guilt to emphasize the urgency of fixing a problem? What messages are best suited to your brand and your channels? To what messages do your communities respond?


Join the conversation during the March 2014 #NPMC Twitter Chat

At this month’s #NPMC Chat, we’ll discuss nonprofit messaging, the options and the opportunities. Bring your insights and questions to the #NPMC chat on Thursday, March 27, 2014 at 1:00 p.m. ET.



Marlene Oliveira

Marlene Oliveira

Communications advisor and copywriter at moflow
Marlene Oliveira is communications consultant and copywriter at moflow and founder of the Nonprofit MarCommunity blog. Having worked in the nonprofit sector since 1999, Marlene specializes in working with capacity building and grant-making organizations, advising on communications strategy, and writing stories and other content.
Marlene Oliveira
Marlene Oliveira