The Key to Fundraising: Guilt Trips

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has donated to public radio or television: Pledge drives do best when laden with guilt-trips, a new study finds.

In "fundraiser-speak," that means appeals that involve negative emotions rather than pitches about benefits to the person who is giving.

Robert J. Fisher of the University of Alberta and colleagues studied 4,868 appeals in various fundraising campaigns for a public TV station and looked at which ones brought in cash. Shame works, they conclude.

Selfish or altruistic?

A cynic would say all people are generally selfish, so getting them to part with their money requires conniving. Yet Americans donated about $306 billion last year, the most ever, according to the Giving USA Foundation, which tracks charitable contributions.

When it comes to donation appeals, Fisher's team found, it seems that potential donors are motivated by appeals that involve the benefit to others: the station, the community or specific groups of people other than themselves.

"Failing to help others ... often leads to shame, which is a powerful negative emotion that is experienced when there is an inconsistency between a person's actual and desired self," they write in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. "Paradoxically, it is by helping others that we derive self-benefits in the form of enhanced self-esteem and social approval — serving others connotes valued human traits including compassion, cooperativeness, and kindness."

Even chimps can be altruistic, however. And as evidence for altruism in primates mounts, many scientists think the trait evolved to help kin or others willing and able to return a favor. For a chimp or early human, altruism would have been like an insurance card to help pass genes along, the thinking goes.

Of course not everyone is the giving type. A study of human brains last year found that a part of the brain linked to perceiving others' intentions shows more activity in unselfish people than in selfish types. The scientists suggest people might do good because they're acutely tuned into the needs and actions of others.

Good times vs. bad times

Studies have shown, however, that charitable giving is not 100 percent altruistic. It tends to go up or down depending on how well-off people are.

A Giving USA report in February concluded that "a slowing economy definitely affects donations to non-profit organizations." In good years, donations by U.S. residents rises on average about 4.3 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In recession years, however, giving drops an average of 1.3 percent.

Regardless, giving in to the guilt could be good for you.

Another study last year, in the Journal of Research in Personality, found that doing good — listening to a friend's problems instead of seeking hedonic behaviors, for example — simply makes people happier. And research published in the March 21 issue of the journal Science showed that giving away money makes people happy.

Robert Roy Britt

Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.