Do Guilt and Cynicism Work? A Case Study

Do Guilt and Cynicism Work? A Case Study


Do Guilt and Cynicism Work? A Case Study

                                     This was in my mailbox...

Two things before we get into guilt and cynicism: If you can handle horror/psychological thrillers you must see “Get Out.” It’s an important and challenging movie about race in America – particularly poking at Obama-loving left-leaning liberals. And then, to calm your heart rate, you’ll have to head to the next theater to see “Beauty and the Beast.” If you like romance, a bit of levity, and singing candelabras (which I do) – this is the movie for you. Two thumbs up all around.
Back to feeling guilty and cynical. The other day I received in the mail (maybe you did too) a business letter with no indication who it was from. My name was spelled correctly (bonus points!). In addition to my address, the front of the envelope had a message typed in a blue script-like font,
“Ms. Scheuermann, make one gift to save one child’s life…and we’ll never ask for another donation again.”

Actually the “never” was double underlined, it was that important.
I was put off by this message but it achieved its intended outcome: I opened the envelope.

Sure enough the first thing I saw was a picture of a child, apparently – because of the way he was dressed – from Africa. And once again the same words: “Make one gift to save a child’s life, and we’ll never ask for a donation again.” And there on the response card was a box to check: “This will be my only gift. Please do not ask me for a donation again.”
In fact, the words “one gift” (as in you only need to make just “one gift”) appear four times in the short enclosed letter.
Ick. This message plays to one too many negative impulses.
It plays on the donor’s guilt. Who could be so hard hearted that you would really only give one measly gift to a hungry child? That would never be me. Oh please, sign me up to be a sustaining donor. Send as many letters as you like!
It plays to the donor’s cynicism. Hooray! I’m checking the “never contact me again” box. One and done. I’ll never have to think about a hungry child again. My benevolent work is accomplished.
I’m not sure how the donor can actually feel good about his or her gift. Based on this appeal, making a donation to this international organization wouldn’t be out of wanting to help its mission. Or believing that the donor is making a difference. Or from a place of gratitude. The donor would be driven by either guilt or by cynicism.
Apparently (and sadly so), this approach must work on some level or they wouldn’t be making such an offer. Like I said, I was curious enough to open the envelope (which is the most challenging thing large non-profits face in mass appeal letters). But I am choosing not to give. Not because I don’t believe in the cause (which I do) but because I know there are lots of other great organizations doing similar work who don’t try to motivate by guilt or cynicism.
Here is your charge: Inspire generosity not through guilt or cynicism but from a place of gratitude and belief in the power of the mission. That’s what will keep your congregation and donors with you for the long haul. Now “Get Out” there and joyfully do the right thing.
Cesie Delve Scheuermann (pronounced “CC Delv Sherman,” yes, really) is a consultant in stewardship, development, and grant writing. Over the past fifteen years, while working as a volunteer and part-time consultant, she helped raise over three million dollars for numerous non-profit organizations. She is still sleeping with one eye open after “Get Out.” She was the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference Lay Leader from 2008-2012. Her position with the Conference is funded through a generous grant from the Collins Foundation. She is available to consult with churches. You can reach her at or on Facebook at
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Cesie Delve Scheuermann

Cesie Delve Scheuermann is consultant in grant writing and stewardship/development working with the Conference. From 2008-12 she was the Conference Lay Leader for the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference.

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