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How Donate Button Advocacy Works

How Donate Button Advocacy Works

How Donate Button Advocacy Works


The Donate Button: We’ve all done it. Opened an email to find a gut wrenching story of a starving child or abused animal, accompanied by a horrifying photo that literally breaks our heart and leaves us in tears, or so angry our blood pressure rises and our face burns.


You sit, sobbing, tears streaming down your face, or feeling the heat of anger rising. It’s uncomfortable. Emotions swirl through your being. What’s even more uncomfortable is that crying child or bag of bones with the sad face and pleading eyes is hundreds or thousands of miles away. There’s nothing you can do. You are powerless to change that picture. But are you?


At the bottom of the page is, in marketing terms, a “call to action.” The donate button. Donate Now! it says, to alleviate the suffering of these children, animals, refugees. Help us save these dolphins, horses, homeless children. Wow, you think, there IS a way I can help. You press the button, sign the petition, give your email and financial information and Whew! You feel better. The terrible discomfort is relieved and there is a sense of closure. I did something. I helped. Big sigh. You dry your tears and go on with your day.


This scenario goes on millions of times a day. I dare say we’ve all done it. Charities, churches, advocacy groups and scammers rely on your discomfort and their donate button to fund their budgets. Why is this so successful and just how does it work?


What we know from neuroscience and brain imaging can explain this common scenario. Emotions are processed deep in the older part of the brain called the amygdala1. Just like receptors for pain, that information bypasses the prefrontal cortex that controls “executive function.” In a life or death situation, we don’t have time to cogitate on whether the fire is hot, the gun is loaded or if that scary person is coming to hurt us or not. That input goes directly to the older, more instinctive areas of the brain creating the fight or flight mechanism, producing adrenalin. Most learning and rational thought fortunately is not that fraught with the same intensity. Reading a technical manual or balancing your checkbook may not be a happy chore, but unless you are suffering severe financial problems, is probably not a fear producing event and the needed skills are found in the prefrontal cortex. No amygdala needed, thank you.


Can you see where I’m going? The disturbing images that come with the call to action, i.e.; the donate button, hits us in our hearts. Hard. Depending on our sensitivity and where we are at that moment, we may even feel a physical ache in our heart, or falling sensation. Like a broken heart, the pain is a real, physiological event. There’s a reason for that. The amygdala and the heart are sending strong signals back and forth. And it feels terrible. Even worse, you feel powerless.


Powerlessness has been studied extensively and has proven to be one of the most damaging of all emotions. People can endure unbelievable hardship if they feel they have even a little power over their environment. Overcoming the feeling of powerlessness is a large component of cognitive behavioral therapy. Even mice stay healthier when they have some control over their choices!


So there’s a quick fix to that discomfort you’re feeling at the stories and images of tragedy, cruelty and injustice. The Donate button! The call to action! Everything in that email or Facebook post is carefully crafted, often by marketing experts, and consciously designed to go directly to your amygdala2,3 and your heart, bypassing your cortex. Not only do we fail to investigate the verity of the information, often we don’t even check to see if we have the funds in our budget to make a donation. It does not want you to think!


A couple of years ago I met the head of a famous and very successful animal advocacy organization whose heart wrenching emails arrived in my inbox on an almost daily basis, screaming about the terrible injustices being done, always begging for money for yet another legal action. I liked her. She was intelligent, extremely knowledgeable and very realistic about the issues. I called her out on the hysterical tone of the emails. She waved her hand dismissively and said, “Oh that’s what my marketing person says gets results.”


I’m not saying it’s wrong to hit that donate button and support worthy causes or agencies that are aligned with your values. It is however, your responsibility to understand how you are possibly being manipulated and research the truthfulness of the claims.


My call to action is for you to recognize the mechanisms of “donate button advocacy,” be conscious of the discomfort, postpone the urge to relieve that discomfort by signing the petition or sending the money, and investigate the veracity of the information first.


“You can make this world a better world. Yes you can, yes you can, can…” Allen Toussainte. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xV7F-JwTx_U


  1. http://bigthink.com/videos/the-amygdala-in-5-minutes
  2. Feelings of anxiety start with a catalyst – an environmental stimulus that provokes stress. This can include various smells, sights, and internal feelings that result in anxiety. The amygdala reacts to this stimuli by preparing to either stand and fight or to turn and run. This response is triggered by the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. Consequently, blood sugar rises, becoming immediately available to the muscles for quick energy. Shaking may occur in an attempt to return blood to the rest of the body. A better understanding of the amygdala and its various functions may lead to a new way of treating clinical anxiety. Davis, M (1992). “The role of the amygdala in fear and anxiety”. Annual Review of Neuroscience. 15: 353–375. doi:1146/annurev.ne.15.030192.002033. PMID1575447.
  3. Studies in 2004 and 2006 showed that normal subjects exposed to images of frightened faces or faces of people from another race will show increased activity of the amygdala, even if that exposure is subliminal. Brain Activity Reflects Complexity Of Responses To Other-race Faces, Science Daily, 14 December, 2004



  1. Jo
    September 12, 2016

    Kerry! Please consider posting this on Medium.com. It is vital. It is important. It’s very well researched and written. And as a journalist, I say without hesitation that it very definitely meets all the criteria of true journalism. Give it the wider circulation it deserves! Changing the world one word at a time!

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