Emotions & Logic in Philanthropy

Today I randomly ran across a two year old comment I left on Katya’s Non-Profit Marketing Blog. Katya Andresen’s colleague Jono Smith had written a post arguing for nonprofit fundraisers to appeal to “the heart, not the head” when approaching donors.

Smith wrote:

Feelings, not analytical thinking, drive donations. According to a new study (PDF link) conducted by Deborah Small, a Wharton marketing professor, and colleagues George Loewenstein & Paul Slovic, if organizations want to raise money for a charitable cause, it is far better to appeal to the heart than to the head.

From Knowledge@Wharton

One pitch for charity described the needs of Rokia, a young girl in Africa who is desperately poor and faces starvation. Another pitch talks about food shortages affecting more than three million children, many of whom are homeless. Which pitch is more effective? Not surprisingly, it’s the first.

That people would want to give money to identifiable victims like Rokia rather than unnamed famine victims may not seem all that surprising. But Small and her colleagues, in a series of field experiments, delved deeper into the issue of sympathy and how it relates to charitable giving. The researchers found that if people are presented with a personal case of an identifiable victim along with statistical data about similar victims caught up in a larger pattern of illness, hunger or neglect, overall donations actually decline. In addition, they found that if people are told about the inconsistent levels of sympathy evoked by identifiable and statistical victims—the “identifiable victim effect,” in the words of the researchers—people reduce their giving to identifiable victims but do not increase their giving to statistical victims.

This study is also highlighted in the book I’m reading right now titled “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Some Die”. The book explains that when the analytical part of our brain is activated, even by unrelated math problems, our empathy/altruism declines. Essentially the authors argue that the analytical part of the brain is separate from the emotional part of the brain and when analytics are activated the intensity of our emotional reactions decline.

But this doesn’t mean that money is best raised by offering donors empty emotional calls to action! The authors of Made to Stick are focused on what makes ideas have an impact on people and stay with them (from urban legends to Jared the Subway Diet Guy to The Girl Effect Video). Their point is not that people are best manipulated by emotions, it is that humans are better at absorbing and preserving certain types of information better than others.

One of the best ways that humans process information is when it is presented in a story format. Good stories offer compelling evidence for their underlying truth. But not by bombarding the listener with statistics. Instead good stories use narrative to build a convincing case.

This idea is often summed up in the philanthropy world as “No Stories Without Numbers and No Numbers Without Stories” (I’ve said this myself in the past). But I think this is actually wrong. Numbers are not the key. In fact the evidence suggests numbers may be the wrong way to go in this case. I think instead it is No Stories Without Truth and No Truth Without Stories.

The reason the Rokia Study bothers some people is it seems to imply that we should just feed donors tear jerker stories to get them to open their wallet. Instead, I think the message is that when you are trying to convince someone of the importance of a philanthropic effort, you should figure out how to present the truthful core of your message in a story format. It is only authentic stories that hold real truths about the world that “stick” over time. These kinds of stories are like wonderful, filling meals compared to the artificially flavored “candy” of the tear jerker that is just meant to extract money from donors.


  1. We have a really great story on our blog right now. It’s about a mother and child who survived all odds. Check it out at http://www.catholiccharitiesofctx.blogspot.com.

    Thanks so much!

  2. Sean,

    I agree with you. Stories are at the core of how human beings process information. And stories with emotional content breed connection. That’s not good or bad, it’s just a fact of life.

    The only point I’d add is, if you JUST are aiming to get people to give, then maybe a purely emotional story would be enough. But if you want to get people to give and to change their understanding of the world — because your nonprofit is doing things differently and you think that message is important — than a content-free but emotionally effective story won’t be enough.

    By the way, I find Made to Stick to be one of the best books on this topic….I think it should be required reading.

  3. Sasha, you write: “if you JUST are aiming to get people to give, then maybe a purely emotional story would be enough.” This is interesting to think about. My guess is that the answer lies in your benchmark. If you are trying to raise money for a nonprofit and you accept the idea that even successful nonprofit essentially live hand to mouth and start each year hoping they can raise enough to survive, than purely emotional fundraising works.

    But if you want to build a high performing organization, potential raise real growth capital and go to sustainable scale, I think there are precious few examples of the typical tear jerker fundraising appeal working.

  4. Beth Breeze says:

    This is a great blog, I read it avidly but this is the first time I’ve posted a comment. In the UK we’re thinking a lot about whether charitable giving is inspired more by passion or by reason. There’s an increasing amount of data now available to UK donors regarding charity effectiveness, presumably based on the assumption that will be factored into decisions. But I’m not so sure – my own research indicates that giving is largely driven by individuals’ passions and tastes. Donors certainly worry a lot about high overheads and want data on how much charities spend on admin etc, but I don’t see much evidence that the vast majority of donors select charities because they have proven higher impact. I wrote a piece for the Philanthropy UK newsletter which argues that the heart-head debate is a false dichotomy because most donors use both. It’s available online at http://is.gd/zWsK if it’s of interest to readers in other countries. Best wishes, keep it up Sean!

  5. Thanks Beth. I’ve seen you a bunch on Twitter. Nice write up. I agree that it is both. The “filling meal” that I referred to is a blend of both. The best food offers nutrition and flavor just as the best philanthropy offers impact and emotional satisfaction.