In the Advocacy Thunderdome, Emotion Always Wins

Psychologist Drew Westin says, “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.” Unfortunately, nonprofits often craft advocacy messages that lack emotion altogether. As the co-authors of a 2010 contribution about persuasive advocacy messaging put it:

Our attempts to persuade the public too often fall short when we trot out the facts, as if they spoke for themselves, without presenting a frame through which they can be interpreted…We expect decision makers to confirm our position as the only logical interpretation of the facts presented…The problem with this approach, according to current mind science, is that it is wrong.

Good facts are not good enough. Successful advocacy requires messaging that appeals to the heart, not just the head. A large body of research shows that appealing to shared values can win more support for one’s cause. Linguist George Lakoff famously asserts, “The truth will not set you free unless the truth is first framed effectively to trigger common values.”

For the past two years, nonprofits voiced our concerns about tax changes on charitable giving by citing facts about real and projected declines in giving behavior. This data is crucial to understanding the impact of new policies, but it has not moved policymakers to action. We need to integrate values-based messages that appeal to policymakers’ hearts as well as their minds.

Emphasize Fairness and Local Impact

Independent Sector commissioned research to identify values-based messages that may increase support for giving incentives. Based on research by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the study tested voters’ responses to six different values-based messages.

Highlights from our findings tell nonprofits:

  • We’re popular – There is strong public support for policies that incentivize charitable giving
  • Go local – Local nonprofits serve as the most effective messengers
  • Emphasize Fairness – Fairness proved to be the most popular message across different audiences

The research also indicates that nonprofit advocates may want to prioritize recruiting local charities to deliver values-based messages to expand charitable giving incentives. In those messages, they probably want to deploy two to three messages: leading with a message on fairness, followed by at least one additional message tailored to the particular audience. Advocates also should use positive, future-oriented language, like examples of how more donations will improve the community.

Get more information on the research findings, download the full report, or watch the webinar.

Finish with a Solution

Research shows that advocacy messages work best when they begin by appealing to emotions through values-based messages, like fairness. Those messages are used to define a common problem or need. For example: Nonprofits need new policies to incentivize more Americans to give to charity. Then, the messages must finish by offering a solution.

For two years, our sector’s most popular solution has been to expand charitable giving tax incentives to all taxpayers, regardless of income or whether they file an itemized tax return. The problem? Nonprofits and policymakers collectively remain uncertain about the details of that potential policy solution. So, help clarify nonprofits’ thinking around policy details, Independent Sector commissioned new research from Indiana University to analyze the potential impact of five distinct policy solutions to increase charitable giving.

Be on the lookout for findings from this study, which will be released in June. And in the meantime, be sure to take a look at the resources from our newest research on values-based messaging.

Types: Blog, Policy Update
Global Topics: Data, Public Policy, Voices for Good
Policy Issues: Charitable Deduction, Charitable Giving