Three ways to harness the law of contrast

My family recently enjoyed a holiday in Cornwall, including plenty of trips to the beach. One day, walking down to the sea, my two young children and I splashed through several puddles. After our 20 minute swim in the bracing North Atlantic, when we walked back up the beach we discovered that the puddles were now much warmer than before.

Even though, my rational brain knew that the puddles could not possibly have changed temperature in objective terms (it was a cloudy day), they undeniably felt far warmer after I had spent time in the much colder sea.

The extraordinary impact of contrast on our everyday perception of reality is one of the many fascinating ideas that Phil Barden brings to life in his book, Decoded. He tells us that ‘We need comparisons to make decisions,’ and that ‘value and cost are fundamentally relativistic.’

This stems from the fundamentals of how our brains work. He explains that ‘if we look at single neurons in the sensory brain, they all have one thing in common: they respond only to differences and changes. If there is no difference or contrast, the receptors stay inactive.’

Wise communicators, including fundraisers, are fully aware of the importance of contrast. There is a good reason why adverts for slimming clubs or other weight loss products invariably include both a before and an after picture. They have found that only showing the inspiring, slimmed down image is less effective because without contrast there is no story and therefore less interest.

How can we use the power of contrast to help donors appreciate the difference their gifts make?

 In my book, The Fundraiser Who Wanted More, I reveal the fourth law of persuasion to be the law of contrast. In the book, I explore a number of ways that fundraisers can apply the law to help increase income.

Here are three to consider:

  • If you meet a donor or corporate partner, think carefully about the order of the visit. For example, visit the part of the cathedral in greatest need of repair first, before going to a part that feels transformed thanks to funding. They will feel the difference. One fundraiser I know finds that donors especially appreciate how inspiring her charities’ cancer support centres are if she initially meets them in the less inspiring environment of the hospital next door.
  • Look carefully at the range of options you provide on your website for people to donate. Just as most diners tend to choose a middle priced wine instead of the cheapest or most expensive, test whether you are providing a range that will help people want to be as generous as possible.
  • In conversation and in proposals, never go into detail about how your charity makes things better, until you have first helped the donor to tune into the problem faced by the people your charity helps. This does not need to be shocking. Just explain what the problem is that people face, and if you can, illustrate it with a very brief example of what causes this to happen, before giving people a sense that your service successfully tackles this problem.


You can find out more about The Fundraiser Who Wanted More – The five laws of persuasion that transform your results, by clicking here.