You may be quick to pull out your wallet to help others in need. But do you know why you choose one charity over another – for instance, natural-disaster victims instead of Syria refugees?

The answer is probably no. While both may seem equally horrific and worthy of your money, in the real world they don’t receive equal funds. According to a recent New York Times article, giant relief organization GlobalGiving found that people were three times more likely to donate to earthquake victims in Nepal and Japanese tsunami victims than to people escaping the Syrian war.

Why? It may boil down to bad marketing. In other words, charities that haul in the most donations may be the ones that foster a sense of hope in their advertising rather than hopelessness.

Good marketing, bad marketing

You probably think your favorite causes are a reflection of your individual social concerns or personal experiences. For example, a lifelong love of nature may prompt you to give to wildlife organizations. Or your father’s death from cancer may underlie your support for medical research.

Certainly having a deep emotional connection to the plight of others — feeling personally invested — factors into how you choose your preferred charities. But giving money also has to do with how charities slant their fundraising appeals to elicit an emotional response. In fact, according to two British researchers, marketing strategies (the way charities tug at your heartstrings) play a much bigger role than most of us imagine.

The researchers, husband and wife duo David Hudson and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson, have long studied how nonprofit groups appeal for donations. The couple originally assumed that people give when they see heart-wrenching images of innocent victims.

But that idea soon evolved as vanHeerde-Hudson, who is a professor of political behavior at University College London, and Hudson, a politics and development professor at University of Birmingham, started noticing something else at play. Philanthropies that followed the corporate advertising playbook – offering buoyant images and inspiring messages – seemed to attract more funds. That is, pity-based appeals (“donate or this person will die”) didn’t work as well as empathy-based ads (“donate and this person can achieve something great”).

two fundraising approaches Two approaches to fundraising tested by researchers David Hudson and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson. The bottom “positive” appeal inspired more hope and donations. (Photo: David Hudson and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson/Emotional Pathways to Engagement with Global Poverty: An Experimental Analysis

To test their findings, they devised two different marketing campaigns for an organization in Bangladesh that helps children rise out of poverty. One used pity and the other focused on empathy. (You can read the study here.)

As shown above, the first pictured an unnamed malnourished child lying in bed with the slogan "You can save a child’s life." The other showed a happy child named Amadi holding a sign that reads “Future Doctor” and a slogan claiming, “All of us sharing a little more can make a big difference.”

“The second [positive] ad was a huge success,” Hudson told the Times. "The data was clear. If you trigger a sense of hope, donations go up."

That’s not to say the negative ad didn’t draw in donations; it garnered only slightly less. But the couple found that the pity-based image seemed to discourage hope over time – giving donors the sense that no amount of money or effort could really wipe out poverty. They concluded that "compassion fatigue" would likely dampen giving in the long run.

Hear their take in this video below:

Real-life success

By many accounts, one philanthropic organization that’s perfected the art of empathy-based fundraising is Charity: Water. The group solicits donations to build clean-water systems in rural villages around the world.

Founder Scott Harrison was a nightclub promoter before starting Charity: Water in 2006, and he decided early on to use a motivational, aspirational marketing approach similar to one used by Apple, Nike and many tech companies.

As he explained to the Times, "We came up with some rules: no pictures of crying children or people with flies in their eyes. No using guilt or shame. Only use mottos that people would want to wear on T-shirts."

Each of Charity: Water’s appeals focuses on a hero and reinforces the idea that small solutions often yield big results. One of the organization’s most effective promotions centers on 15-year-old Natalia, who is president of the water committee in her village in Mozambique. Through dramatic storytelling, we learn how Natalia used to miss school before the new well was built because she had to walk great distances for water. Now with it available in the village center, Natalia is able to attend school every day. The story is reinforced with a powerful photo of her standing with her arms crossed and an empowered look on her face.

positive marketing Natalia Screenshot of Charity: Water’s positive marketing campaign focused on 15-year-old Natalia. (Photo: Morris Weintraub/Charity: Water)

Charity: Water has its share of detractors who say the group oversimplifies the drinking water shortage and what’s needed to fix it. Even so, in the past decade the group has funded nearly 23,000 water projects in 24 countries, reaching an estimated 7 million people. What’s more, it has become a darling of the Hollywood and Silicon Valley sets, as well as popular among millennials (who remain stubbornly out of reach for most charities). In other words, it has put a dire worldwide problem on the radar of new givers and those who can really make a dent.

Hope = money

So what would make you support fleeing Syrian refugees? As research shows, good marketing is key, particularly because this problem is so overwhelming. To sell the plight of war victims, experts say charities must employ specific positive workarounds:

• Offer a timely solution. You’re less likely to donate if there’s no end in sight. Experts say that’s one reason people tend to give more after a natural disaster. There’s a recognizable time frame. The calamity happens and for a finite period people need help rebuilding. This inspires hope. Not so in the case of an ongoing war. To boost generosity, donors need to feel their money is making a timely and visible impact, not draining down a rabbit hole. That means fundraising appeals that focus more on refugee success stories, highlighting specific heroic individuals who are now thriving, instead of crying babies in dusty refugee camps.

• Keep it simple. Trying to explain the mind-numbing complexities behind a problem, such as the political and social causes of Syria’s civil war, can backfire. It may reinforce the idea that nothing short of a miracle will help. Giving often goes up when charities make things understandable, concentrating on what a few dollars can buy (specific things like blankets, food and school books) and emphasizing their tangible impact on helping people create new lives for themselves.

Bottom line: Hope and not despair inspires us to make the world a better place.

When it comes to donations, hope matters
Gut-wrenching appeals can mean fewer donations, say two British researchers who looked into marketing approaches.