It's no secret we live in highly polarized political times, leading to a seemingly endless cycle of outrage, fear, and anger played out on the social media stage. You may have been caught in the crossfire yourself. But what does this have to do with helping animals?
This heightened cycle of outrage has led to the rise of the "rage donation," the act of giving money as a form of expressing anger or disapproval of a breaking news story or new government policy. Primarily utilized as a form of personal activism and expression, it has been stunningly successful at funding the candidates or causes in question.
Of course, playing on people's fears and anger to raise money is nothing new. What's new is the spontaneity with which it's happening, and the enormity of its success. For example, the ACLU recently raised seven times more money in one weekend than they had in the entire previous year thanks to the response to a single federal policy change related to their core mission. What's more, they did little or nothing to spur these donations; they were driven primarily by individual response to spontaneous appeals on social media both from celebrities and average citizens.
This isn't a tactic unknown to animal welfare. Certainly triggering responses of anger, guilt, and even vengeance on the part of animal lovers has been a reliable staple of animal cause fundraising since long before Sarah McLachlan first crooned "arms of an angel" on late night television. And if the stream of horrifying images and stories flooding the feeds of animal lovers across social media are any measure, it's clearly a powerfully grassroots phenomenon in animal welfare, too.
So what's different now, and how can you utilize this information in your animal-related fundraising? And since ethics matter, how can you do it without sinking into manipulation and contrived outrage for the sake of financial gain?
The good news is that ethically centering a fundraising message around genuine and powerful emotions is not complicated, although it does take a lot of groundwork. It's not something you can throw together in a single hour after a news story breaks -- and to be honest, even an hour is probably too long.
Let's look at an example. There's a breaking story in your area that your organization will unquestionably be involved in. It might be a puppy mill raid, a dog fighting bust, or a large-scale animal cruelty case.
Your social media and development teams -- even if that's one person with a smartphone and a plan -- need to be ready to respond within minutes by sharing the story on Facebook and Twitter. The key to doing this without creating a vulture-like impression or in fact being exploitative is to make sure these three elements are in place:
- Your organization's involvement is central and confirmed. Fundraising on the back of a crisis when your involvement is tangential or speculative is a quick way to destroy your credibility, not to mention unethical.
- Be genuine. The most important thing we have in terms of fundraising for animal causes is the deep love our target audience feels for animals. If we waste that in the name of raising money, we've violated that love and damaged our ability to effectively advocate for the animals. So ensure that your tone is sincere, compassionate, and focused on the animals and their needs, not yours.
- Be transparent, specific, and timely. Tell people what you need the money for in as great a detail as possible, and then report back quickly on how it was used. Don't wait for a quarterly report or even for the crisis to be over. Tell them that evening, "Thanks to your donation of $1,500 in the last hour, we were able to purchase fencing supplies and construct emergency kennels on the grounds of our shelter."
Even if all those elements are checked off, your job is not finished. When you post, you need to ask your followers to share the story. Don't just assume they will; be explicit. On Twitter, add "Please RT!" On Facebook, come right out and ask them to make sure their friends, colleagues, and family members see the story. (Try to avoid using the word "share," as it can backfire, and may also trigger a negative response from Facebook's algorithm.)
One of the most important points to keep in mind is less simple, and requires both careful consideration of your audience and the ability to walk a fine line without falling off in either direction.
While triggering powerful emotions can inspire people to support a cause, negative images and stories can be very disturbing to some people. They've also been found to hamper pet adoption efforts. The last thing you want to do is see dozens or hundreds of angry comments because you posted a photo that was horrifying to your followers, or create the impression that pets who come into shelters are broken, damaged and traumatized.
The problem is that terrible things do happen, and animal organizations need money to respond to them. What's more, giving people an immediate, effective outlet for their anxiety and outrage actually helps them channel those negative feelings into something constructive, which is itself a way to process those feelings and feel better -- that's the very reason the "rage donation" is so widespread.
To improve your chances of walking that fine line, consider these tips:
- Protect your followers. Instead of posting upsetting photos directly to your social media, publish them on your website and share the link on Facebook with a warning that it contains potentially disturbing images. There's nothing like being hit in the face with a terrible image to create the opposite reaction to the one you wanted, so make sure you're telling the whole story but still shielding your followers and readers.
- Remind people there are heroes in the world, and invite them to be one of them. It might be a whistleblower, a compassionate law enforcement officer, or the heroic response of your own community or volunteers, but there are almost no stories, however dark, that don't involve some inspiring elements. Find the good in the tragedy and spotlight it, while letting people know how they can be part of the heroism.
- Emphasize the redemption story. Remind everyone exposed to your message that the pets will be cared for. Share other stories of animals who recovered and went on to be adopted and live happy lives, or even become ambassadors for other abused animals. Don't leave people dwelling in the despair and anger; tell them that their support will turn their outrage into redemption, and show them how.
Definitely don't begin your social media response by asking for money; your first response should be to simply share the story. No one will fault you for asking for donations of needed supplies or volunteers. In fact, doing so makes people feel ownership of the event and your efforts, which can inspire the kind of spontaneous sharing that is so characteristic of the "rage donation." Requests for money should only begin after the event is over and the need is clear, or several hours into the event if it's ongoing.
It's critical that your social media team be empowered to put this plan into action without permission, review, or any other process that would slow the initial response. It's fine to coordinate after the first round of posts go out, but don't put up obstacles to the most rapid possible response once the story breaks, or even a little before if you have some advance notice.
Even though you shouldn't start asking for money right away, it's also important that your team knows how to update your donation page to include this incident, as people are going to be looking for it. Individual online givers are more likely to donate to earmarked causes than to give money to your general fund. They want to feel they're part of your emergency response effort, not that their donation might be used to buy printer ink.
You also need to develop a communications strategy long before the first incident. Your social media team needs updates and they need photos. Have a meeting with your emergency and communications staffers, and make sure anyone who will be in the field understands what's needed to cover an incident, and ensure the organization has the resources it needs to handle it.
Finally, keep in mind the three rules of fundraising: Tell people what you're doing, ask them for help, then tell them what you did because they helped. Don't let the story end until everyone who dropped off a crate, gave ten dollars, or shared your posts on their Facebook page has heard how it all turned out, and that their support truly made a difference. Not only is this simple human decency and good for your organization's image, it lets you make sure the story has a happy, or at least inspiring, ending. And that will make all the difference the next time you ask for help for the animals.
Negative emotions are extremely powerful. It's not particularly difficult to use them to raise money. What is difficult is doing it ethically, compassionately, and sustainably. That takes preparation and it takes the will to do it; don't let your organization, and the animals in its care, miss out on either.