The Problem with Guilt as a Motivator for Non-Profits

by Ken Mueller on April 20, 2012 · 6 comments

Today’s guest post is from Dan Portnoy, author of The Non-Profit Narrative, which I reviewed here last week. Check at the end of this post to see which of our commenters will be getting a free autographed copy of the book.

The Problem with Guilt as a Motivator for Non-Profits

The video begins and the images fade in. All black and white picture of haunting horror come across the screen.

A person in the gutter, the streets of the red light district, mistreated animals in cages.

Each set of eyes shows no hope. The piano music begins. Image after image showing how terrible things are.

Then the voice over begins…

We’ve seen this kind of campaign over and over. It’s tired, insulting and manipulative. The crazy part is: it works.

Guilt works, it really does. But it’s a short lived victory.

The downside to guilt is that it will solve the problem for today but eventually a message of guilt becomes white noise or worse, attaching your brand to a feeling of anger.

Homelessness, animal abuse, and human trafficking are all terrible issues and they need all the help we can give to change their trajectory. So here’s a few tips on how to avoid using guilt on your next campaign.

Tip #1 – Think about the issue for more than 10 minutes.
In the last 4 years I’ve seen a ton of videos on the issue on homelessness. Anytime a shelter, housing program or rescue mission hires a new team to create media, the first offering is usually in the black and white photo style. Why is that? Because it’s the first idea. Brainstorm!! Take an hour and let your mind think o the possibilities. I also love this quote, ‎”I think the fundamental job of a producer is to be a dreamer.” –Gil Cates

Here’s some contrast – I think this video shows the horror and the seriousness of the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles and it’s done through well thought out content, personal/authentic story and it’s not preaching.

Tip #2 – Don’t create in a vacuum!
Grab your best mates for a small rap session. It doesn’t have to be a focus group. Just bounce some ideas off them and see what resonates. I find the best audience are abstract thinkers because there’s nothing to look at. Grab a white board and start fleshing out your brainstorming session.

Tip #3 – Inject the Joy!
As much as horror and shame can be a way to tell the story, let’s look at the other side of the coin. Can we show hope and inspiration and energize your audience? What if your media left audience thinking about how they could join your work? Look to be more than a reminder of how terrible some things are or be the echo of sadness for the rest of the day.

Tip #4 – Take a Risk
You can be awesome or awesomely terrible to have things spread on the internet. Tupac Hologram at Coachella or Hot Problems – and that was just this week. No one ever shared that campaign that was, “Ok” or “Not bad”. Trust your gut and swing for the fences. Even if it doesn’t get massive attention, you’re learning and your process will be better.

Tip #5 – Do you like it?
Before you ship it out the door you need to ask, “Do I like this?” Would I get involved with this?” “Am I proud of this?”. If the answer is anything less than, “You bet your sweet bippy!!” then there’s work to do. Take another crack at it. Don’t obsess for perfection but make sure it’s at least 85% to your liking.


And, congrats to the winner of an autographed copy of The Non-Profit Narrative: Jen Pastores. Jen was randomly chosen from the comments on my review of the book. Jen, congrats, and thanks for entering!


Dan Portnoy is the author of The Non-Profit Narrative: How Stories Can Save the World. He loves helping passionate people strive for the impossible and on several occasions he’s seen it happen. Send him an email at


What evidence do you have that guilt provides only short-lived victories? That's a pretty bold statement and one that runs counter to the best practices of our industry. Have you conducted donor or activist retention studies?


I know it makes us feel better to produce sweet, hopeful messages but if they don't work, aren't we hurting the people we are supposed to be helping?


Hi Dan,


I love that you wrote about this, because I've been thinking about this campaign lately: Rather than make people feel hopeless about this issue by showing sad animals with sad eyes, they've put an upbeat spin on adopting strays. Help the humans!


Thanks for pushing people. Jenn


 @Serafina Thanks for your comment. As for data, I'd have to point to the direct mail market. An area plagued with gimmicks and guilt. Month over month, year over year this tactic has poisoned the well and people are giving less. My clients when focusing on communicating well see great response in their campaigns but when fear creeps in, the guilt is usually not far behind. It's irresponsible for an organization to blatantly manipulate their donors and then expect people to stick around. 


Messages of Inspiration like Caine's Arcade (, sharing humanity and a story encouraged people to spontaneously donate over $150,000 to a young boys dream. There wasn't even an ask for people to respond to. 


I think it stands to reason that a message of guilt is counter intuitive in building relationships and relationship management. The next generation of non-profit, and the one that will survive the economic downturn, is looking at a lifetime value from their donors. They also know that building a relationship on a premise of manipulation is short lived.  How many people are excited to see Sally Struthers cry for poverty, or hear Sarah McLachlan sing about wounded animals without changing the channel? 


The world wants to know how their money helps and wants to see results. Guilt just weighs you down. 

KenMueller moderator

 @jennwhinnem The difference between hope and hopeless can be a fine line sometimes. Thanks for stopping by, Jenn!

KenMueller moderator

 @DanPortnoy1  @Serafina I agree with Dan on this. Guilt works, but only for a bit. Eventually, I believe it to be counterproductive. And even if it did work, is that what we really want? I want to give to organizations because I can see and share in their victories, not because I feel guilty. And from the non-profit's standpoint, it is true that giving is giving, regardless of our motives, but I'd rather have donor's who WANT to give just because they want to help, not out of a sense of guilt or compulsion. 


  1. […] This info was originally posted as a guest post at Inkling Media […]

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