I’m about to clairify a subtle but very important point about what motivates philanthropic giving. After all, that’s what “Clairification” is all about.
It’s often said that people give to people. So true.
But people are funny.
People will often give more to people who show them the pain that can be avoided through their gift, rather than to the people who show them the good that can be gained.
Seems counter-intuitive, right?
Absolutely. So here’s a little reminder: People don’t always behave as you might intuitively believe they would. Which is why fundraising is part art and part science.
Here’s something we know from research:
Fear of loss weighs heavier than hope of gain
Allow that to sink in a minute.
Again, this is subtle. But if you ‘get it’ you can really improve your fundraising messaging and calls to action. So stay with me.
We know donors give because they want to make a positive impact. To do good in their community and/or the world. To make a difference. So shouldn’t we stress the benefits of giving for our donors?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t. But you’ve got to do so within the context of pain vs. gain.
Begin by showing people what they have to lose by not giving
It sounds negative. But what you’re doing is driving people towards a positive.
Generally, what people stand to lose is the hope their gift truly will make a meaningful impact.
Hope is a powerful emotion. In the absence of hope, it’s hard for people to feel good.
People don’t want to lose hope.
With most of us, hope springs eternal. We seek a brighter future. A better tomorrow. A hope for universal kindness, eternal health and world peace.
A litany of benefits will not prompt action as strongly as demonstrating the hopelessness that can be avoided — if the donor gives.
But here comes the tricky part.
Write your fundraising offer so it doesn’t trigger feelings of hopelessness
You don’t want to show people too much potential loss. They’ll give generously to avoid loss when they think it’s something they realistically can do. But… if you trigger feelings of hopelessness by depicting loss on an immense scale, then pain begins to seem unavoidable.
You don’t want your donor to feel that, even if they give, there will still be great pain.
Such a fundraising offer is perceived as a “drop in the bucket.” The donor feels the gift they’ve been asked for will be a relatively small and meaningless token. So… what’s the point?
It’s not a satisfying feeling to give $10 to help 24,000 starving children. It’s much more satisfying to give $10 to help one malnourished child avoid the pain of starvation.
Let me demonstrate by telling you about a little experiment, conducted by Paul Slovic, that reveals how subtle factors affect the way people gauge the impact of their gift.
When asked if they’d save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp with 11,000 people, donors gave more generously than when they thought the camp had 100,000 people.
Why? The perceived relative impact was bigger.
When asked if they’d give $10 million to save 50% of the 20,000 people killed annually by a disease, they chose this option rather than giving the same $10 million to save 20,000 people from a disease that killed 290,000 lives a year.
Why? They’d rather not lose 270,000 lives than save an additional 10,000 lives.
I told you. It’s counter-intuitive.
It’s more appealing to spend the same amount when less loss is involved
Too much loss, and people begin to feel hopeless.
If you give $15,000 you can fund a pantry to feed 1,000 of the 5,000 people in this neighborhood who don’t have enough to eat.
If you give $15,000 you can fund a pantry to feed 1,000 of the 100,000 people in this City who don’t have enough to eat.
The ask seems to be the same. But the second answer will be met with greater failure than the former.
Human behavior is ruled by emotions much more than logic (remember the difference between irrational humans and logical Vulcans on Star Trek?).
Regret is about lost opportunity, while hope is about opportunity to be gained
We feel regret for our inaction, for what we didn’t do. We feel hope for our action, for what we can do.
We hate losing things more than we like gaining them.
For example, if forced to choose between being given $500 for certain or a 50% chance of winning $1,000, most of us will opt for the sure thing.
But if the choice is between losing $500 for sure or a 50% chance of losing $1,000, most of us will take the gamble.
When you suggest to people that they give something up in order to do good, they have a lot of difficulty doing so.
Has anyone in your organization ever suggested you ask folks to give up their latte for a week and give the money, instead, to charity? Guess what? It doesn’t work well. People don’t want to give up their latte! That’s perceived as a loss. Remember, people will do anything to avoid a loss.
And don’t try to use logic to persuade them otherwise. None of this “others have it worse than you do” stuff.
People aren’t motivated by thinking about how things could be worse.
The worse things look… the more they feel pain is unavoidable… the more hopeless people become.
Hopelessness paralyzes people into inaction. They stop trying to be the hero, because it doesn’t seem doable. They decide to sit it out, hoping someone else will save the day.
To motivate people to answer your call to action, demonstrate believably how things can be better
Here’s what to make sure to include in your fundraising offer:
1. Tell one story about how you’ll use your donor’s gift.
Take a look at the 1980 study by Richard Nisbett showing how a single, vivid story more powerfully affected test subjects than authoritative data on the same topic.
“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” – Mother Teresa
Describe exactly how much the gift is needed and precisely what your donor’s money will be spent on. Avoid phrases like “please give however much you want… for ‘whatever’ is needed.” Vague requests leave money on the table, and definitely don’t inspire thoughtful or passionate giving. Why? Because the donor is unclear as to the best solution they can offer you.
3. Be specific about what you’ll do with the money raised.
Donors want to know the specific impact of their gift. Don’t tell me it’s going to “restore hope.” It’s unclear what “hope” costs. It’s clear what medicine, food and shelter costs. If you tell me you need $300,000 to give shelter to 10 women for a year, I have a good sense of what the impact of my $500 gift will be — and how many people like me it will take to bring your project to fruition. If you ask me to make a gift of any amount (“every little bit helps” is one of the common fundraising phrases that makes my skin crawl) to go towards your $3 million budget to help 15,000 homeless people, I’m a bit lost. It’s seems overwhelming, and my gift seems like it will be a mere drop in the bucket.
Inspire your donors to act. Show them how to avoid loss, and make them feel hopeful about the impact of their philanthropy.
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Photo courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net
A version of this article appeared originally on Clairification September 20, 2015.