Your Brain on Philanthropy: Compassion Fade

Compassion is a major motivator in philanthropic giving. Sure, some people give because they need or want the associated tax break, but most people, when asked to explain why they give to charity, say they give for much more personal reasons. In an interview of 700 Britons, Charities Aid Foundation found that people say they give primarily out of a sense of morality and an ethical duty to help those in need. In other words, most people give because they see a need that their own fortunate abundance can help fill and feel a moral duty to use their abundance to meet that need.

While not all moral and ethical systems are based on a sense of compassion, most personally robust ones do involve an awareness of and a caring for the sufferings and misfortunes of others. If we didn’t notice the sufferings of others, we wouldn’t really have a morality at all. If we noticed but didn’t care, we would be rejecting ethics entirely (or embracing a rather f*cked up narcissistic ethics, which, admittedly, some people do). Compassion has a significant place in any moral and ethical system, and the way and areas in which people feel compassion influence their giving to philanthropic causes.

It is to the benefit of nonprofit organizations to pay close attention to how compassion is triggered in people, and how people respond to upwellings of compassion. Focusing on what triggers compassion is much more important and effective when trying to raise money than the facts and figures needed to give a rational, objective case for why someone should give.

(Sidenote: I remain amazed at how prescient Hume was in recognizing that human behavior is driven primarily by the passions, rather than reason.)

Nonprofits certainly have a responsibility to show why they are effective, to show the numbers and data explaining how they have used donor funds and whether or not they are accomplishing what they committed to doing. But that data, unfortunately, is not effective for attracting new donors.

Studies show that people are more likely to give when a “victim” or specific person-in-need has been identified. We like to give to individuals, not statistics. And sadly, we are all subject to the cognitive bias called Compassion Fade: the tendency to feel less compassion as the number of persons-in-need we are considering increases. As Joseph Stalin supposedly said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”* Our brains are wired such that we are much more likely to feel compassion towards individuals than the large, faceless masses, because we are better able to personalize and imagine individual experiences rather than those of a collective.

That means that when we fundraisers are talking about the importance of our work, we need to be careful not to focus on numbers and abstract metrics. If we want to connect with people philanthropically, we need to do it in a way that sparks their compassion, and thus their sense of personal morality. We need to tell stories of individuals and of small communities, preserving the anonymity and agency of those we hope to help, but also showing examples of how the work we’re doing benefits individuals. Zooming out to the full scale of the problem is rarely effective; most of the time, we are best served by zooming in.

* Technically the quote is “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” But that’s not quite as elegant.

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