I’m sure you remember grade four art class like I do. As kids, we were taught that the thousands of colours, shades and hues we see all come from just three primary colours: red, blue and yellow.

But, did you know that emotions work the same way? The thousands of emotions that you and I experience – and emotions that drive your donors to give! – all stem from just FOUR PRIMARY EMOTIONS.

But, before we list them, let’s look at where they come from, how they work and why they matter to fundraisers. I know from experience that once you understand the WHY of all this, you’re much more likely to remember the WHAT and the HOW.


Our brains and nervous systems built our emotional software over hundreds of thousands of years. It’s really important to understand that for the vast majority of the time that this software was being developed, we were hunting and gathering our food and sleeping in caves – and high tech was the discovery of fire.

Every species on earth has two primary drives: to survive and to procreate. When you think of it, these are both survival drives – one is for you to survive as an individual, and the other is for you to help the species survive by creating more human beings!

While most of us don’t spend a lot of time actually thinking about our own survival on a day-to-day basis, our instincts and drives are still very much wired for survival – and this wiring drives a LOT of what we do each and every day.

Think of emotions as overrides. In a dangerous situation, for example, a powerful emotion will kick in and direct our behavior – pushing the conscious, thinking brain to the side. Think of a time when you lost your temper, for example. This is an (albeit dysfunctional) example of your emotional programming overriding your logic and reason.


Most of us don’t know it, and I think the rest of us are in denial about it, but 85% of human decisions and behavior are driven by the unconscious mind. We don’t like this idea because it suggests that we’re less in control of our lives than we’d like to be – but it’s a neurological fact. And – most of that unconscious behavior is emotional in nature.

Yes my friend, the brain talks a lot and has a big ego. But, the heart runs the show.


I like to visualize the emotional menu like a huge oak tree.

This tree has four big, thick major limbs that extend out from the tree’s trunk. From those four main limbs sprout countless branches of varying sizes, heading off in every possible direction.

Those four big limbs – or primary emotions – are a result of our evolutionary drive to survive and procreate, and this wiring was built over hundreds of thousands of years. The truth is that we don’t need our emotional makeup today the way we used to in our cave-dwelling days, but these emotions are driving the show inside our heads anyway.

So here’s my list of the four emotions that matter – the four you should remember and use every day in your fund development work:

FEAR: In cave days, we needed fear to help us avoid the life-threatening dangers that were all around us. If you were walking down a path and came across a sabre-toothed tiger, you don’t want to stop and think. You just need to run, and run fast! Your fear instinct kicks in – pumps your adrenal gland so you can run faster – and gets your legs moving away from that tiger before you can think about anything.

ANGER: We developed this emotion to help us fight to protect what we needed for survival. In ancient times, we might have to fight a neighbor or a predator to protect our spouse, our children, our food supply or our caves. You know how it feels when your temper takes over and your anger explodes. That anger is the anthropological gift your ancestors from millennia ago left you with.

SADNESS: This is an awful feeling that we experience when we lose something important to us. We developed this emotion to help us behave in ways so that we wouldn’t lose those people and things that we needed to survive (like our children who would feed and protect us in our old age).

HAPPINESS: While the first three emotions are negative reinforcements associated with events that threaten our survival – happiness is the reward for doing something right in the survival game. The contentment you feel after a family Sunday dinner is an evolutionary reward for avoiding starvation. The glow you feel after making love is your reward (biologically speaking) for procreating the species and helping ensure its survival.


I’m a firm believer that your donor’s decision to give is a two-step process.

Yes, the brain decides how much to give. The brain decides whether to give today or next Monday. The brain decides whether to give online, call the 1-800 number or mail a cheque. The brain might even decide to make a monthly gift.

But, before the BRAIN makes all these choices, the HEART must create the impulse – or desire – to give. I can tell you from extensive reading and research – as well as from my own fundraising successes and failures – that in order to get great fundraising results, you need to reach the HEART before you get the BRAIN thinking.

In PART TWO of this blog, I’ll talk about how to use emotional triggers to get your donors to want to give. I’ll give you examples, and help you build your own skills as an emotional storyteller and fundraiser. Stay tuned!