Stories Over Statistics: How to Prevent Compassion Fade in Donors

One in 6 people in America are hungry. Two-thirds of people in India live in poverty. Half of the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria.

Feeling exhausted yet? Throwing out shocking statistics such as these is a staple for many nonprofits seeking donations. It’s an understandable marketing strategy — one of the greatest challenges nonprofits face is helping people who live in relative comfort to understand the magnitude of suffering experienced by the less fortunate. In order to evoke empathy, it’s crucial to make your audience understand the gravity of the situation at hand. But what if there’s and simpler — and more effective — way to move your prospective donors to generosity?

A 2014 study by Västfjäll, Slovic, Mayorga, and Peters entitled “Compassion Fade: Affect and Charity Are Greatest for a Single Child in Need” found that emphasizing the quantity of people in need of help can actually be counterproductive. Their research found that presenting donors with an individual in need is more effective in increasing donations than presenting them a group of people in need.

“Our capacity to feel sympathy for people in need appears limited,” they wrote. “This form of compassion fatigue can lead to apathy and inaction, consistent with what is seen repeatedly in response to many large-scale human and environmental catastrophes.”

It doesn’t take a full-on crisis to exhaust your audience, however. The study found that even adding one more person in need of help to the picture decreased the effectiveness of a call to action. Our ability to empathize with multiple people is, indeed, limited. Attempting to evoke emotion for the plight of even two people is more difficult than moving a prospective donor to help an individual.

We all know that the best way to inspire generosity is to make people care. In order to do this, nonprofit marketing strategy often involves introducing people to a seemingly insurmountable issue by spouting off facts and figures about world epidemics and large-scale disasters. The goal here is to make distant issues seem like more of a reality, but doing this actually has the opposite effect. It’s impossible for us to even grasp the concept of a billion people in need, much less sympathize with their suffering. Instead of making the issue more tangible, focusing on its enormity makes it more abstract than ever. Thus, “compassion fade” occurs and a prospective donor moves on without taking action.

It may seem that implementing these findings would require an extreme renovation of your marketing strategy, especially since most nonprofits deal with big issues. But really, all it takes is a shift in perspective. Replace the photo of a large group of homeless people on your website with an up-close portrait of an individual living on the street. Alter the language in your email campaigns to ask for help feeding a hungry “child” in need rather than calling for an end to child hunger. Post a blog article telling the story of one woman who’s making a sustainable living thanks to a loan from your microfinance institution rather than reporting on the number of women you’ve helped overall.

It’s not about minimizing the challenges your nonprofit faces or diminishing the large-scale successes your nonprofit has achieved. It’s about giving us a story rather than a statistic —  zooming in to a face in the crowd.

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