Heart and Head Giving – Keeping Your Donors in Hard Times

We’ve all been there! Just as our annual appeal was about to begin. another natural disaster has taken the spotlight How can we argue? The devastation and human need are overwhelming. Once again, as has happened after hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes all over the world, Americans—individuals, corporations and foundations alike — have opened their hearts and their wallets. It seems that our domestic non-profits, tirelessly meeting chronic (but less dramatic) needs can’t humanely do more than suffer in silence.

I just caught up with a great article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about this topic. Here’s a quote to ponder:

“ ‘From a strictly rational perspective, we ought to apply all the resolve given to helping in natural disasters to inner-city problems, to rural poverty, to broken educational systems, to lack of health insurance, and so on,’ notes Stephen G. Post, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine. Instead, ‘much of the public has a kind of crisis mentality, giving only when they can see that affected populations are in severe, life-threatening emergencies,’ laments Ellen Seidensticker, special adviser to Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.”

Now here’s the incredible part! You know those appeal letters we slave over? How we search for the statistics and facts to support our heart-rending stories? According to cognitive psychologists’ studies, it’s the plight of one client told with immediacy that opens wallets. Facts and figures alone are far less effective. And when we combine stories with facts and figures, they actually reduce the effectiveness of the story! Apparently the open wallet is directly wired to the heart, not the head. When we add head information to the heart-based appeal, the potential giver starts to study, starts to question and this “head process” blunts the impulse to give.

So if we look at this slightly cynically, we are hard-wired to flip from sad-eyed baby to sad-eyed puppy to sad-eyed dolphin—whatever the crisis du jour is. We are most likely to empathize with an individual’s plight. And the more like us—or the closer to someone we know—the more likely we’ll be generous. On the other hand, we’re more likely to be overwhelmed by big numbers—magnitude dis-empowers us and our philanthropy! A great side-bar to this is that if we’re told our contribution can help feed 1500 people in a refugee camp of 6000 we are are more likely to give than if it’s 1500 in a camp of 60,000! Percentages matter!

So how do we who labor in the fields of chronic community problems fight back? We read between the lines. We don’t try to combat the crisis mentality directly but we construct our own strategy. Here are 5 tips:

1. Tell your story in terms of individuals and the difference donors can make with their (individual) contributions.
2. Construct benchmarks to illustrate success in fighting long-term battles.
3. Collect stories that demonstrate progress is happening.
4. Tell a powerful story that includes the donor as a vital contributor to a long-term outcome.
5. Keep donors engaged with regular updates.

The good news is that the same research supports the finding that donors who open their wallets to the crisis du jour generally don’t stop giving to causes to which they are committed. Giving them reasons to feel committed is our job!

Here’s the link if you want to delve into this yourself: http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/crisis_mentality

Posted By:  Susan Hailman,  Knowledge Transfer & Utilization Director