Happy or Sad Fundraising Stories: Which Works Best?

The single most important element of any fundraising campaign are the fundraising stories.

Technology, your ad budget, or a fancy fundraising app will never replace solid fundraising stories based on the 4 P’s:

  • Person: Your story is about one person with a problem that needs solving.
  • Problem: Your story has a problem the donor can solve.
  • Payoff: When the donor solves the problem, they get the ultimate payoff (a wonderful feeling).
  • Pump up: You keep donors involved by pumping them up with positive stories.

Bottom line, storytelling is the engine that drives all fundraising success.

But which is better: happy or a sad fundraising stories?

Will you raise more money with happy stories of success? Or will sad stories raise more?

One powerful study tested which faces worked best in charity ads: Happy or Sad. Researchers discovered that highly involved supporters (donors, volunteers, supporters, etc) preferred to see happy faces, wheres people who were relatively uninvolved preferred sad faces.

So it depends.

More people give when they are emotionally driven to solve a problem (sad). And they stay involved when they see their impact making a difference (happy).

Sad puppies raise more money

I asked my friend Julie at the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia what she thought about happy versus sad fundraising stories and here’s what she said:

“Our number 1 fundraising story to date was, of course, the Habersham rescue, a horrific 350+ dog puppy mill case which was incredibly sad and raised about $12K.”

sad puppy fundraising stories

Their #2 fundraising story was about Cabela:

sad puppy fundraising stories

“Cabela’s before photo (left) was incredibly disturbing and her physical condition was definitely very visual. Which leads me to an equally important point–you can have a sad story, however, our experience has been a sad story without a great visual will not do nearly as well. Cabela’s story raised approximately $4K, our best fundraising story to date of an individual rescue.”

The sad-happy story cycle

In donor / fundraising communication, sad stories and happy stories generally follow the donor comm cycle: ASK, THANK, REMIND.

The sad-happy story cycle Fundraising Stories

  1. ASK: When you want to donors to give, you tell a sad story.
  2. THANK: When they donate, you immediately thank them and tell a happy story (look at what you did).
  3. REMIND: When you update donors about their awesome impact (happy), you also have to remind them that more work needs to be done (sad).
John Haydon