Donors Are Nutty! This Might Help Explain Why

In a logical world, the bigger the problem is, the more donors would give to solve it.

But people aren’t logical (it’s what makes us so much fun!).

You’ve probably heard about the identifiable-victim effect. It tells us that donors will give more to help a single victim than to help many victims. This is the research where people were given a story about a starving girl in Africa, but when that same story was paired up with statistics about starvation, people gave less.

The typical explanation is that statistics blunted the emotional impact of the story.

But what’s really at work, according to other research, is donors’ sense of perceived efficacy, the feeling about how much their gifts will do. In one test, the first group of donors got a photo and story of a poor child. The second group got photos and stories of two poor children, and were told they could give only to help one child or the other, not both. The second group — those who got two stories and photos — gave less. The same result happened when the second group got photos and stories of seven children in need.

The conclusion? When donors get information about additional people needing help — whether it’s just one other person, seven others, or statistics about millions of people — that information discourages them from giving. Donors consider the people who won’t be helped, feel less good about giving, and conclude that their gifts won’t do as much good as they want — then don’t give. Of course, rationality says that helping even one person is better than helping none. But donors don’t see it that way, and no amount of logic is going to change that.

What to do? Here are two approaches.

  1. Focus on the human drama, not the scope. It’s a natural reaction to want to make the problem seem big by citing statistics, referring to others in need, showing images of people in crisis, and so on. But that doesn’t work. It doesn’t even work in disaster fundraising, where the need is often shockingly large. Avoid the temptation – and it’s a strong one – to hype the size or breadth of the problem. Instead, focus on presenting the individual human drama as compellingly as possible in copy and images.
  2. Present the right offer. The offer you present to donors has to be calibrated to donors’ sense of proportion. If possible, be specific. Say $XX does a specific thing, and make sure that the specific thing is reasonable to your audience. You can’t expect a donor to solve world hunger. But you can expect a donor to help one hungry child when the gift will make a clear, defined difference. That he or she will gladly do.
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