Do you remember baby Jessica? It was 1987 in Midland, Texas. An 18-month-old Jessica Morales fell 22 feet down a well just 8 inches wide. Lodged in the pipe for 59 hours, the story drew near-continuous coverage on every major network until the toddler was pulled to safety. The sheer impact of the highly visible and horrifying story of this little girl's ordeal on the American public is quite remarkable. The White House held a reception, ABC made a tv movie, and thousands of donors generated an estimated $700,000 in support.
Pew Research ranks her story 8th in media interest over the past 20 years, USA Today identified her as the 22nd most impactful person on our lives, and CNN coverage totaled more than that of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where 800,000 people, including many babies, were brutally murdered in just 100 days. That's an average of 8,000 people per DAY.
The Identifiable Victim Effect
Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist with MIT and the author of The Upside of Irrationality, a wonderful and intriguing book that I just finished and highly recommend. Ariely sheds light on why we give to some causes, and not to others, illustrated by a simple study:
First, random participants were given $5 and offered the opportunity to donate some or all of their newfound money to a charity in response to a food shortage in Africa. Half of the participants received disturbing statistics. The other half received a personal story about a little girl, Rokia: "Your gift will change her life..."
The result? Participants gave twice as much to help Rokia - 48%, as compared to 20%. Why? Ariely pegs our empathy-or-apathy response to three psychological factors:
The physical proximity and feeling of kinship you share with the victim. We feel much more for a family member whose home burnt down across the street from ours, as compared to a fire that takes out a village in Angola.
How visible and tangible the need is. A picture of a bald, 4-year-old leukemia patient is vivid. A billboard that informs drivers that heart disease is the number one killer of women is not.
The Drop in the Bucket Effect
The faith in your ability to have an impact. We tend to shut down emotionally when we perceive the need to be so large that we cannot do anything of any real value.
How Can Causes Learn from the Baby Jessica effect?
Stalin historically said, "One man's death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic." Mother Teresa echoed the sentiment, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."
Some causes, like St. Jude's Hospital, have a very obvious face, but many do not. These missions aren't any less important and deserve strategic messaging to connect with a broader base of donors who give more:
- Find your baby Jessica. If you're lobbying for cleaner air, highlight Jane, who has asthma and missed 24 days of school last year. Connect your medical supply nonprofit to Joe, who received a knee replacement and was able to go back to work. It doesn't have to be a tear-jerker, but your donor needs to relate.
- Focus on a picture and a story. Seeing the face of your mission immediately makes it more personal. Pair that with a compelling and tangible story about their life, stirring an emotional connection. This isn't about being scammy. Your cause is IMPORTANT. Your work has meaning for people. Communicate that.
- Drop the statistics. It can be hard to completely delete the fact that there are a million Jessicas out there everyday, but the bigger the problem, the less likely your potential donor will try to help. You have a very limited window to capture their attention; don't turn them off with an impossible task.
- Empower the donor. Instead of making your donor feel helpless with depressing statistics, show the breadth of the problem by highlighting how many people were helped last year "by donors like you". Take a note from the Save the Children classic where donor could "sponsor" a child and even get updates on them. There's a reason they garner $600M in contributions a year. Make the smallest donation meaningful.
Review your website, brochure, social media pages, direct mail appeal letters, fundraising speeches, and any other vehicle for connecting with donors. You'll probably find a lot of statistics and very few pictures of real, genuine people and a clear message of how my $20 can make a lasting difference.
Step 1. Invest a day in crafting better messaging and images for your mission and then launch that messaging cohesively across all of your platforms.
Step 2: Put methods into place to identify and collect new images and stories from your work to consistently refresh your messaging and empower more donors to have an impact through your organization.
If you supply direct service partners, provide an easy process for them to funnel stories and pictures back to you. Even if you are layers away from the impact, find a contact on the frontlines and partner with them to tell the stories of those you help.
Don't wait, this is one of those important but not urgent tasks that will forever undermine your fundraising if you don't do it now.