What Science Tells Us Can Improve Our Fundraising

If only there was an easy answer to our fundraising woes—too much to do, too little donor loyalty, too many unrealistic expectations. While I don’t have the final answer, I do have two suggestions based on science.


Those of us who came of age in the early 1970s probably remember the song “If” by Bread. The band talks about a picture being worth a thousand words and then continues, “The words will never show the you I’ve come to know.”

Forty-five years later, those words seem prophetic for fundraisers—especially when it comes to online communications. In our visually focused society, the simple inclusion of a photo can move a social media post from obscurity to at least some notice.

When it comes to the value of visuals, it’s hard to separate truth from fiction. I regularly read that our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than words. That may be more urban myth than scientific fact, but visuals can help us remember things. Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Haig Kouyoumdijian said, “Words are abstract and rather difficult for the brain to retain, whereas visuals are concrete and, as such, more easily remembered.”

Statistics aside, it’s fairly obvious—to me at least—that visuals command more attention than words alone. To do my own unscientific research, I posted this on Facebook last week, along with a photo of myself on a very windy day: “I read the other day that Facebook posts with photos get something like 75 percent more interactions. Now, I not only have to be witty, but I also have to find a photo to visually describe my wittiness. The stress of it all! It’s no wonder I am having a bad hair day.”

Sure enough, I got more “likes” and comments than usual—by a factor of about 6-to-1. Since inclusion in a person’s social media feed depends, in part, on how often a person interacts with your posts (likes, comments, shares), including a visual to potentially increase the likelihood that the post will get a follower’s attention is certainly worthwhile–short- and long-term.


But being that I love words, I was pleased to read that scientists have also learned that our words can be even more powerful when they are used to tell stories. Reporting on research done by scientists in Spain, Leo Widrich wrote in BufferSocial, “Whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That’s why metaphors work so well with us. Whilst we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, disgust or else.”

One of my mantras as a fundraiser is, “I must not bore.” Let’s face it—a lot of fundraising, in print and online, is just plain boring. In trying to not offend anyone, too often we don’t communicate anything. But telling stories is one tool to help us turn strangers and friends into volunteers, advocates and maybe even actual supporters.

But don’t take this old dog’s word for it—listen to the scientists! Fundraisers make it easier for their donors and potential donors to grasp the need—and the solution they can help make possible—when we use visuals and tell stories. That’s a goal fundraisers should embrace: Use our words and visuals to paint a picture that gets donors eager to jump into the scene and make a truly life-changing difference—for the recipient of the help and the donor who makes it possible.

Originally published on NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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