Nonprofit Technology

4 Ways You’re Scaring Away Your Nonprofit Donors (and What You Can Do About It)

Published by in Nonprofit Technology

Halloween season is finally here! I love everything about the month of October. The leaves, the cooler weather, and best of all… horror movies! Ever since I was a kid I’ve been a horror-movie buff. If a movie has truly scared me at any point, you can bet that I own it. My massive DVD and Blu-ray collection is loaded with horror and suspense, old and new.


You could say I am just like the horror movie dork from Wes Craven’s Scream. I am the type to analyze classics like Halloween (my favorite) after having watched the film countless times. Don’t judge me.

Unlike these horror movies, the job of nonprofits is to bring in more donors and bring about social changes, not scare people away. Despite this goal, some nonprofits fall into practices that send their donors packing faster than the Lutz family fleeing the Amityville house.


Here are four ways you’re scaring away your nonprofit donors and what you can do about it!

1. Pop-Ups

In my opinion, the worst thing about many modern horror movies is the abuse of jump scares. While a carefully placed jump scare is useful at unsettling your audience, modern horror movies have embraced the logic that if one is good, then tons must be great!

The overuse of the “jump scare” is lazy and cheap. It doesn’t add anything in terms of creepiness, plot depth, relatability, or mystery to a scary movie.

Consider the “found-footage” subgenre of horror movies. Some found-footage films use these techniques correctly and for the right reasons (such as the first Paranormal Activity), while others abuse them. Sure, you can get a few screams out of your audience, but after a while the audience numbs to the formula.

This is why I still enjoy watching mysterious and unsettling movies like Se7en and The Ring, while others, such as Unfriended, I only had to see once. No one will be reminiscing about the “memorable” moments of that film in a few years.


(The Ring still creeps me out to this day, which is why I love it.)

The same goes for website pop-ups, especially mobile pop-ups. If you think that a pop-up will increase engagement or prompt some kind of response, you are right about one thing:

These pop-ups will prompt visitors to leave your website.

Mobile pop-ups slow down rendering times, they’re distracting, and they can be difficult to close compared to desktop pop-ups. Do your website and your donors a favor and disable the pop-ups.

2. Way Too Much Text

You know why horror movies are never made into Braveheart-length epics? No one wants to watch three hours of the same horror-driven plot, unless it happens to be a television show. Even then, “horror” television such as American Horror Story or The Walking Dead are centered around human drama with horror as a backdrop.

Most, but not all, scary movies are horror-driven with some human drama as a backdrop. Human drama is used as a small plot device to keep the story rolling. The plot to Halloween is the perfect example of this concept and its simplicity is what made the classic so brilliant.


A boy kills inexplicably kills his sister, escapes a mental institution some years later, and stalks and kills babysitters in his old hometown. One babysitter survives his attack, but the killer escapes. The countless sequels add more to the mythology of the first Halloween, but this only cheapens the original’s effect.


This plot is simple yet it is still terrifying because it could happen in your neighborhood. How can you keep your audience hooked to such a simple plot if your movie is three hours long or several sequels deep?

You can’t.

Just like executing a plot in an optimal amount of time, your donation website and donor forms can’t be too long. Long bodies of text and long donation forms are kryptonite to hooking donors, especially younger donor pools with short attention spans.

Opt for less text, shorter forms, and more visuals to convey points and concepts on your website. Less is more.

3. Neglecting to Do Anything in Return for Individual Donors

One of my biggest frustrations with the found-footage horror genre is the use of a sudden, unexplained ending. There is absolutely no closure and there are only a handful of horror films that have pulled off this kind of ending in a justified and satisfying way, such as The Blair Witch Project.


The only reason the sudden and unexplained ending works for The Blair Witch Project and not other found-footage films was the marketing campaign leading up to the film’s release. Before the movie was released and even for a while after, the actors and actresses in the film were kept out of sight of the media. The film’s website contained fake police reports and interviews that pushed the narrative that this was the real deal.


Therefore the sudden ending, after a terrifying experience waged by an unseen tormentor, is justified since the fear of the unknown piques the curiosity of those who bought into the marketing campaign. The campaign created a hunger to know more.

Otherwise, the sudden ending cliche that is now routinely used in the found footage genre is completely unsatisfying. After investing all of that time into a plot and sitting through the countless jump scares, audiences leave unfulfilled.

You don’t want your donors to feel dissatisfied after giving to your nonprofit either.

Luckily, there’s plenty you can do, and it doesn’t need to be expensive. For example, a prompt “thank you” for a donation is all that is needed most of the time. A “thank you” letter or email acknowledges the donor’s actions  and reassures them that you value their contributions.

Feeling appreciated is a need that we all have. Fulfill it!

4. No Other Choice But To Donate

The internet horror-movie buff keyboard warriors are gonna come after me for this one, but I actually enjoyed the 2013 remake of the classic, Evil Dead. I am a huge skeptic of movie remakes, but this one was done well.


The original Evil Dead was made on a shoestring budget and ended up parodying itself (which is what made it a classic). This time, the studio had a real budget to make the movie that the original director, Sam Raimi, envisioned.

The plot is relatively simple. College students head to a cabin in the woods to help a friend, Mia, overcome a heroin addiction. One of the students is Mia’s brother, whom she hasn’t seen in a long time, which has created a rift between them. They discover an evil book in the cabin, which, unbeknownst to them, has the power to summon demons from hell. Happy film, right?


One of the college students decides to read from the book. A demon subsequently possesses Mia. Further reading from the book instructs the students that in order to rid Mia of the possession, they must kill her. In the end, the brother concocts a plan to kill, and revive, Mia to get rid of the demon. In doing so, he thought around the “single option” that the book afforded him.

Some nonprofits are perfectly content with offering only one option to their audience: donate or don’t.

Millennials, for example, disproportionately want to offer help to issues they care about, but often aren’t financially able to.

Millennials want more options. They want to volunteer and when we have the money, we want to donate. But only offering a donate option scares us away from helping your organization.

If you must ask for money from younger donors, be sure to offer them volunteer opportunities as well for those who can’t afford to contribute monetarily.

4. Lackluster Social Media Campaign

The reason why The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity performed so well despite having such low production budgets were due to their marketing campaigns.

The Blair Witch Project heavily relied on internet marketing, using mystery to gain attention. At that time, found-footage horror was not a regular staple of cinema and that differentiation gave them an opening. Their marketing campaign has been dubbed “the best viral marketing campaign of all time.”

Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, used the internet to capitalize on audience reactions to the film. Trailers included audiences gasping in a blacked-out theater and prompts to demand that the movie be brought to your local cinema. Their message was simple: “You gotta see this film”

This section is less about what scares away donors, but rather leaving them on the table. Social media allows nonprofits to market ideas to the world. Institutions that neglect this resource for fundraising are doing themselves a disservice. Not only should social media play a role in fundraising campaigns, but they should also be carefully planned and researched.

Having access to information all over the globe is a double-edged sword. Good information is easily lost in the vast sea of social media. Targeted social media work that sets your nonprofit apart from the rest make all the difference between the average Facebook post and a viral fundraising campaign.

(And yes, nonprofit software can help you with that process.)

Who wants to donate to your campaign? When will they want to donate? What makes your campaign different? These are questions you must answer when attempting to raise funds through social media.


Just like the horror movie industry, there are some great fundraising efforts and a whole lot of disappointing ones. The sooner you fix these issues, the less time you will have to spend begging for donations (which is more time you can dedicate to analyzing the layout of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining).

Are there any other practices you know of that scare away donors? How do you fix these problems? Let me know in the comments below!

Looking for Nonprofit software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Nonprofit software solutions.

About the Author

Nick Morpus

Nick Morpus

Nick Morpus is a former Capterra analyst.


Comment by Courtney Lehman on

Thank you for this article. I appreciate your creativity and comparison of horror movies and fundraising mistakes. The mistakes that can occur and that you have highlighted are real, and like you stated, especially important to pay attention to with a millennial audience. The way you went deep into explaining the horror films and then gave a sentence or two about how to NOT do this in marketing is, what I am deducing, how you are suggesting non-profits market to millennials. However, I would have liked to have seen you dig a little deeper into the “mistake” area. I am a gen X’er. This, in essence, is an article that highlights the horror film genre. But I appreciate your enthusiasm. And, for me, has effectively given me insight on how to market to millennials.


Comment by Nick Turner on

Excellent article – I would have enjoyed the perspective on horror films alone. I really appreciated the tie-in to fundraising mistakes.

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