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Fundraisers can learn from our human response to disasters

By Jeremy Douglas, Special to the Sun February 4, 2011
What if I gave you $100 to donate to either (a) Sandra, a young, homeless girl whose parents abandoned her, or (b) the overall homelessness plight' Who would you give the money to' Most of you will pick Sandra even though donating to "homelessness" would go to people in a similar situation to Sandra. Why' Because we're hard-wired to care more about a victim we can identify with than a large number of people or faceless statistics, no matter how grim. That's why, according to academics, people stand by and do nothing or do not intervene early enough in the face of great tragedies, like the genocide in Rwanda. It's impossible to comprehend 800,000 individuals. They're just "lots and lots of dots."

We don't lose sleep over genocide, but we're deeply affected by one person's story, like the disappearance of
Madeleine McCann. This isn't right or wrong, it's simply a fact about how people comprehend individual lives. To reluctantly quote Josef Stalin: "A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." Our brains are programmed to tune out large numbers of people and instead focus on single individuals. This tells us a lot about why we support certain causes and why, for example, 33 Chilean miners received more press coverage than 20 million flood-affected Pakistanis. The fewer the number of people the more "real" a story becomes.

To prove this theory, researchers conducted an experiment in which they gave people the opportunity to donate up to $5 to Save the Children. They could chose which area of the charity's work the money would go toward: (a) an identifiable victim (African girl Rokia); (b) statistical victims (starvation in Africa); or (c) identifiable victim with statistics (Rokia + starvation stats). Donations to an identifiable victim, Rokia, generated more than twice as much money as donations to a statistical portrayal of starvation in African. Even adding statistics to Rokia's story reduced the donation amount. Other research found that adding just one extra person to the appeal reduced the amount of the donation. The more people involved the less we are affected. People don't like numbers when it comes to compassion.

This awareness of human psychology has practical implications for charities and fundraisers. Fundraising is all about understanding people's motivations for supporting a cause -- is Anna donating to our charity because she just wants to run 10k, or does she genuinely care about the cause (or both)' Either way, her decision is rational and thought out. The decision to support one person instead of many, however, is unconscious. It has to do with the way we feel about an issue in an instant rather than stepping back and taking a rational look at it. There is something about the face and story of one individual that grabs us and makes us want to take action.

So, to maximize donations, fundraisers should focus their public appeals on one person's story, accompanied by a powerful image.

In the words of Mother Teresa, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

Jeremy Douglas is a professional fundraising consultant.

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