Putting a Face to an Issue Improves Donations.

Researchers have long established two facts about the size of donations. First, the amount people are willing to give does not depend on the size of the problem, secondly they will give more to save a single, identifiable, victim than they are to save hundreds or thousands of faceless people.


The first study asked three groups of people how much they would be willing to donate to rescue birds affected by an oil spill. The first group was told there were 2,000 birds, the second were lead to believe there were 20,000 and the third were told 200,000 birds in danger of an oil spill. The researchers assumed people would give more to rescue a bigger number. In fact, the donations were pretty much the same for each group.


The second study found people were willing to donate very large amounts to help ‘Baby Jessica’, the little girl in the photograph with the big eyes and the sad expression. But if they were told the charity was raising money to save eleven million people in Ethiopia from starving, the donations were much smaller.


I don’t think these findings are particularly surprising. In the first case, people probably have a fixed amount in their minds (and budgets) about how much they can reasonably give to any cause. They know they can’t fund the entire effort, so they give as much as they think they are able to. In the second case, the more you know about a victim and their circumstances, the more sympathetic you are likely to feel. When big numbers are involved, it feels as if any single donation will be insignificant compared with the amount needed.


A case which seems to contradict these studies is the Indian Ocean Tsunami where thousands of faceless victims evoked a flood of donations. However, I think the quick relay of video footage made a difference in people’s reactions to an event that would otherwise have occupied half a column on the fourth page of US newspapers.


A great many charities for overseas relief offer donors the chance to “buy a goat” or some other animal for a sad looking child, its parents or its village. These donations are often sold as gift ideas for wealthy donors at Xmas time. This adds the appeal of not only a child victim but also an animal which donors can relate to. In fact, giving a village a cow might not be in the best interests of either the village or the cow. (The fact I have linked to a charity’s website should not be considered an endorsement of that charity.)


So this is why charities, big and small, use case studies in their promotional materials. As a donor, it is necessary to look behind the emotional appeal and see where the money is really going.

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