Your Brain on Philanthropy: Availability Heuristic

Isn’t “heuristic” such an intellectual-sounding word?! I feel erudite. I also love the way it sounds, considering what it means. A heuristic is a way of approaching a question or problem that values the practical and easy over the accurate. Basically, it’s our brain jumping to conclusions, rather than taking a beat and doing the difficult work to search out what might be most true, most accurate, most real, etc.


One of the heuristics that colors how we perceive the world is the Availability Heuristic. Kahneman and Tversky found that we tend to make judgments about how likely something is to happen based on how easily we can think of examples of that thing happening — the availability of examples, in other words. When judging the likeliness of something, if we are easily able to think of instances when that thing happened (or of situations in which it could happen), then we will judge that thing as likelier to happen, regardless of the statistics underlying its actual likeliness.

A great example of this is seen in the pervasive fear of flying. It is very, very, VERY unlikely for someone in the US to die in a plane crash. Nonetheless, people (raises hand) are often fearful of flying. We’re fearful not because that fear is rationally grounded; we’re afraid because we can so easily recall and imagine plane crashes. Rather ironically, because plane crashes are so rare, they are very newsworthy. Our cultural attention is drawn to stories of crashes precisely because they are rare (and terrifying), news outlets blast out videos of smoldering wreckage and strewn luggage 24-7 for a while, Hollywood loves to capitalize on the drama of aeronautic disaster (my personal fave is Air Force One), and as a result, the image of “plane crash” is seared into our brains. We are all able to recall instances of planes crashing and most of us would probably rate the likelihood of us dying because our upcoming flight crashes higher than is rational or reasonable, given the actual odds. I know this. I know the odds. And yet every time a flight I’m on takes off or lands…

Just imagine whiter knuckles and a sloppy self-manicure (my left hand is worthless at nail painting).

So what does this mean for fundraising? What does the Availability Heuristic mean about how we should best work with donors and prospective donors?

I think it works in two ways. 1). Donor communications. This is the part that many organizations are already good at. We tell our stories repeatedly and in various ways (print, video, social media, etc.) in order that they “stick.” We talk about our successes such that people will remember them, such that our donors and constituents will be able to recall those stories when thinking about and talking to others about our organization.

This opens up a whole other question about how to make stories stick, and how to ensure knowledge and stories are recalled. Two books are worth reading to answer these very questions: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath, and Stories That Stick: How Storytelling Can Captivate Customers, Influence Audiences, and Transform Your Business by Kindra Hall.

The Heaths outline six ways of presenting and framing an idea for maximum stickiness: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotional, and Stories. Hall lays out the four kinds of stories that resonate best with audiences: The Value story, the Founder story, the Purpose Story, and the Customer Story. (The Heaths say there are three plots that are most compelling: the Challenge Plot, the Connection Plot, and the Creativity Plot.)

What we want to do, as fundraisers and within the nonprofit sector, is to be aware of what it means for stories to be sticky and how best we can tell our stories not just in ways that our donors and prospective donors connect with, but that they can remember and quickly and easily recall. To make sure the stories are simple. To tell stories of the unexpected. To highlight the great purpose of our work and organization and the creativity of our folks and our donors.

Beyond communications, the availability heuristic is also relevant when we are 2). Listening to our donors. People are more likely to remember the stories that resonate with what they already care about, that they are already thinking about. That means that we need to listen to our donors and discover their specific and unique passions. We can assume they are already passionate about our mission and cause on some level, because they are already donating to us or they agreed to take our meeting. But that passion is usually more specific than any broad mission. I work for an organization focused on the environment, and most of our donors are passionate about conservation and responding to climate change. But there are a whole host of areas within those very broad categories. Some people may be passionate about watersheds. Others about marine mammals. Others about coral reefs. Others about reinvigorating and preserving the indigenous practices that preserved the mauka-to-makai of specific environments and communities.

As fundraisers, we should keep an ear tuned to how and when those passions make themselves known: what makes a donor light up, what specific things they mention when talking about how much they value our organization, etc. Then we can tailor what stories and opportunities we share with them, choosing the stories that are more likely to resonate with the individuals we work with. That, coupled with an understanding of how to tell our stories “stickily”, means that we will be doing all we can to make sure our donors easily recall the great work of our organizations, the impact donations have on that work, and the continuing need for passionate people to support that great work and by extension the communities they serve. Keeping the availability heuristic in mind will make our asks more compelling and will help donors more easily picture themselves making those impactful gifts — and thus be more receptive to making those gifts a reality.

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