FUNDRAISING SCIENCE - One person or many?

publication date: Jan 4, 2013
author/source: Janet Gadeski

This article introduces a series by Ken Wyman, on a research sabbatical until August, 2013 from his role as professor and coordinator of the Fundraising Management graduate program at Humber College in Toronto. With 35 years of experience in the industry, he’s seen far too many conferences where speakers share anecdotes rather than rigourously tested data.

But many charities are too small to test within their own databases. Fortunately, there’s plenty of work by neuroscientists, psychologists and other scientists who want to figure out why, when and how people are moved to be generous. Ken shared some of those experiments in a presentation to the Southeastern Ontario chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in Kingston. Hilborn eNEWS will bring you the highlights over the next few months.

Paralysis by statistics

The “identifiable victim effect” was discovered in a study conducted in 2005 and summarized in If I Look at the Mass, I Will Never Act. Subjects were paid to participate in a psychological experiment unrelated to empathy or generosity. As they picked up their payment on the way out, researchers invited them to contribute $5 of their earnings to Save the Children. The subjects received one of three very different information sets:

  • Big-picture statistical descriptions of hardship with facts such as “Food shortages in Malawi affect more than 3 million children” and “More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food aid.”
  • An anecdote of a specific, suffering individual – “Any money you donate will go to Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. Rokia is desperately poor, and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. . . .”
  • Statistical descriptions combined with Rokia’s story.

Rokia’s story motivated the greatest generosity – an average gift of $2.50. Subjects who received only the statistics gave the least, an average of $1.14. Adding Rokia’s story to the statistics didn’t increase the giving that much; the average from the subjects who heard both was just $1.43.

Lessons from the research

Scientists think that our brains might process information about individuals differently from information about groups, with the former eliciting much more empathy. The effect is summarized in a newspaper headline cited in the research paper: “Head Spinning Numbers Cause Mind to Go Slack.”

That’s one more reason to tell powerful stories about one individual if you want to raise more money. Don’t distract from the story with statistics. You might think you’re appealing to the donors’ heads as well as their hearts, but all you’re doing is interfering with the impulse towards generosity.

Focus on only one individual whom the donor can help. Adding a second person who needs help reduces the amount donors give. But that’s a research story for another day.

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