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A Statistic is Just a Number

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b2ap3_thumbnail_malala.jpgProviding numbers and statistics are an important part of building a case for support but when it comes to making donations, people find it hard to give to a number. But let us see a viral video about a lonely kid building a cardboard arcade or a news story about a girl getting shot in the face for going to school and the money will flow.

Thomas Schelling* first introduced the concept of the Identifiable Victim in his 1968 paper The Life You Save May Be Your Own. “There is a distinction between an individual life and a statistical life," he wrote. "Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”

Applying the logic of a Vulcan, the money given to help one individual would have more impact if it were used, instead, for services that have the infrastructure to help greater numbers of victims. But in field studies, researchers found that when people were informed about this discrepancy, they had a tendency to give less to individuals but did not increase their giving in other areas so they just gave less overall. (Small and Loewenstein, 2007)

If we concede that it is easier to work with human nature rather than against it, we can apply this research to our fundraising efforts. When we know personal details, we feel closer to the person, perhaps identify with them to the extent that we think, "that could have happened to me or someone I love."

When I worked with an organization that provided vision rehabilitation services, we didn't like to use the word "victim" or say that clients "suffered" from vision loss. But every communications piece had a story that told of one person's (or family's) challenge, their dreams, and their journey to achieve that dream. (Every good story has struggle but research shows that a positive ending is more sharable.) We connected the organization's mission to that person's story. Sure, we had some stats but by the time that part of the narrative came around, anyone who was going to donate had already made the decision to do so. (This works with animals, too!)

The cynical me sees the identifiable victim effect being used in the political sphere on a regular basis. A recent example would be the "victims" that have been put forward around the affordable healthcare issue. I find this kind of manipulation very distasteful and contrived. We, as fundraisers do have an obligation to not cross the line into exploitation. Never forget that these are real people and their stories will help us raise funds to help other real people who may not be in the spotlight but are just as deserving.


* Fun Fact: Schelling's work was influential in the development of Dr. Stangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Image via Malala Fund

For me, fundraising and communications go together like peanut butter and jelly – delicious & filling!

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