In 2007, researcher Paul Slovic from the University of Oregon wanted to study why we ignore mass genocide, and he explored ways to help humans care about larger tragedies. In his extensive study on human emotions (source), he referenced and expanded on a study that tested storytelling and measured the impact of different stories.

Two Similar, But Different Approaches
The first story centered around a single child affected by famine in Mali, Africa and included her picture:

Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa, is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second story was mainly statistics about Africa:

• Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children.
• In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated 3 million Zambians face hunger.
• Four million Angolans – one third of the population – have been forced to flee their homes.
• More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first story got many more gifts — nearly twice as many. Even adding statistics to Rokia’s story, such as the phrase “She is just 1 in 14,000 children who suffer”, dropped the amount of giving by almost half.

An Emotional Connection
This is sometimes called the “identifiable victim effect.” When humans are faced with a problem, we are more likely to help if we can empathize with a single person affected by this problem as opposed to a group of people. When we present potential donors with overwhelming facts, they might think, “I’m not Bill Gates, I can’t solve world hunger!”

Illustrate the Feeling of Impact
How can you incorporate this into your nonprofit’s storytelling? Isolate a single story from the people (or animals!) you touch. Then show the donor how their donation can change a single life and make them a superhero.

If you are working to end homelessness, tell potential donors about one person who needs to find transitional housing in order to find a job. If it’s your mission to provide a safe after school program for children, tell the story about one child who uses your facility while his parents work.

The important key is to give the donor a single story to care about so they can act on it and make a true difference.

If you’re interested in learning more, join us on May 15th for a Mid-Valley Development Professionals workshop on Donor-Oriented Storytelling.

“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” –Mother Theresa

Source: Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 2, no. 2, April 2007, pp. 79-95.