Thursday, November 18, 2010

Want to Raise More Money This Holiday Season? Lose the Statistics.

  • 6 million children die of hunger each year.
  • 200 million people around the world could be displaced by more intense droughts, sea level rise and flooding by 2080.
  • 77% of students say that they have been bullied.
These are just a a few examples of the types of statistics that you can find on most nonprofit websites. 

Facts like these are the backbone of many a "case for support."  The problem is that research shows that, contrary to popular belief, statistics like these DON'T MOVE PEOPLE TO ACTION.  Instead, they actually DEPRESS fundraising results.

A new book, Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change by Nick Cooney, documents research which shows why statistics don't work.  Namely, statistics lead us to think analytically and "thinking analytically actually reduces people's generosity." 

"A study by researchers Deborah Small, George Lowenstein and Paul Slovic examined the impact different types of appeals had on charitable giving to a hunger relief organization. 
The first appeal asked donors to help Rokia, a young girl from Mail who was very poor and who faced starvation. 
The second appeal presented facts and statistics about the millions of hungry children facing starvation in African countries. 
The third appeal included both the personal story and the facts about widespread starvation. 
Which of these three ads would you guess generated the largest amount of donations from study participants?

People shown the personal story donated twice as much money overall as those given the facts and figures.  The third appeal - the combination of the personal story and statistics - worked only slightly bettern than the facts-only appeal...

If our minds worked logically then learning the statistics on how millions of children are starving should make us give more than learning about the plight of one individual child, yet the opposite results were found... Thinking analytically reduces most people's generosity (Small, Lowenstein and Slovic 2005)."
The other problem is that people don't trust numbers.  You've heard the saying, "Figures don't lie.  But liars figure."

So what's a nonprofit to do? 

You've heard this before, but according to the research above, the best way to motivate people to give more money is to appeal to their EMOTIONS vs. their REASON. One way to do this is to tell a story about ONE person, animal, etc. and lose the statistics.

CARE is good at this.  Check out this appeal that I received in my inbox today.

By focusing on one mother - Hasana - CARE tells a powerful story about the impact of poverty on one human being.  According to the study above, this appeal should outperform others which focus on the collective impact of poverty and hunger.  

Another way to appeal to people's emotions vs. reason is to use lots of images in your fundraising materials.  For example, I love the way that Vital Voices (literally) highlights the women it serves.  These photos speak louder than words and help connect me to their work.

Have you done a similar analysis of fundraising appeals in your organization?  

Got any examples of nonprofits that do a particularly good job of telling stories about how INDIVIDUALS are impacted by their work?  Please comment below or send them my way.

Happy fundraising!


3 comments: said...

Thanks for highlighting this very important fact about facts vs. the power of one and the importance of behavioral economics to our field. I got the same CARE appeal but didn't like it because the subject line was "6 million children will die" - they lost me at hello. Thoughts?

Jocelyn said...


You are right! The CARE subject line ignores the research by focusing on a statistic about poverty instead of highlighting Hasana's story.

The fact that they lost you at "hello" is telling. I wonder how many other people felt this way too.

Thanks for this good insight!

Megan Thomas said...

This is a great post! Another common trap for non-profits in their fundraising efforts is focusing on a non-profit's process v. its impact. For example, does an anti-hunger organization talk about the great stoves and its efficient kitchen scheduling, or about the struggling, but no longer hungry, families that they feed? Sounds like a no brainer, right? However, for those who are immersed in delivering the mission of a nonprofit, it is tempting to start talking about the stoves!

Megan Thomas