Mr. Spock’s Guide to Improving your Charitable Appeals

by jdn74 on February 19, 2012


In the scene above, from the end of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Spock is dying from a lethal dose of radiation that he absorbed while repairing the warp drive of the U.S.S. Enterprise. He sacrificed himself so the ship is capable of escaping the imminent explosion of the deadly Genesis Device. Spock tells Captain Kirk, “Don’t grieve. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh … the needs of the few … or the one.” In other words, he will die, but the ship and crew will survive.

It is rare in the non-profit world that an organization is founded to serve the needs of a single individual. Even those inspired by a single tragedy usually expend their efforts to help many others who are suffering in a similar way. But marketing messages that focus on the needs of the many can actually work against an organization trying to raise their profile or increase their donations

An article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy brought to my attention a series of scientific studies that explore factors that determine how an individual responds to non-profit requests. There were some fascinating findings and I’d like to discuss the results from one of those studies in more depth below:

A group of Swedish students were paid a small sum of money for filling out a survey on their use of various technologies. After being paid, they were asked if they would like to donate a portion of their earnings toward Save the Children. Some of the students received a picture of a young girl, Rokia, and a description of her plight suffering from hunger. Some were shown a picture of a young boy, Moussa, with a similar description. A third group were shown both pictures and descriptions. In each case, the students were told that their donations would go directly to help Rokia, Moussa, or both Rokia and Moussa. Afterwards, the students rated their feelings about donating on a scale from 1 to 5.

Results from the study showed that when viewing a picture of only one needy child, students donated similar amounts to each and felt good about their donations. But both donations and positive feelings decreased for the group that saw both pictures. This is an effect that one author of the study, Paul Slovic, refers to as “psychic numbing.”

As the graph below illustrates, psychic numbing describes a decrease in the perceived value of saving lives the more lives there are to save. One person is easy to relate to and feel compassion toward – compassion that motivates us to act. We can make a difference when it is an individual in need. But as the size of the need grows – to groups of people and then to faceless statistics – our ability to empathize decreases.

This effect has been documented again and again. And while there are multiple explanations for why we naturally react this way, non-profits who are at the forefront of trying to help disadvantaged populations need only concern themselves with one take-away. The way to reach your supporters is through the power of story-telling.

Statistics may seem convincing (e.g. “1.5 million children in America are homeless”), but how many of us can wrap our minds, let alone our hearts, around that number? How many of us have ever seen or touched 1.5 million of anything? Yet the story and struggles of one homeless child, or one homeless family, will move us to act.

When it comes to the biology of giving, you could say that the purse-strings are connected to the heart-strings. As powerful, or even stunning, as some statistics may be, moving supporters emotionally is often much more important than convincing them rationally. And stories of specific people in need are the way to do that.

Let’s revisit Spock’s death scene in light of this research and ask a question: What touches us in this scene? If we are moved, what moves us?

On the surface, we have Spock’s words — that the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” “It is logical,” as he puts it.

Yet few of us sitting in the audience are watching this scene thinking about the “many” people on the U.S.S. Enterprise that Spock has saved. We aren’t cheering that the crew will survive. Instead, we are saddened at Spock’s suffering; moved by his sacrifice; and perhaps even grieving for the loss of this “one.” Our reaction is not logical, it is emotional.

By harnessing the emotional power of story-telling – profiles of the “ones” your organization has helped or hopes to help – you can generate goodwill and financial support that allows you to help “many” more to Live Long and Prosper!

**Client stories are a powerful marketing tool and once you have one, don’t just slap it up on your website and forget about it.  Download the Tip Sheet below to learn 10 different ways to use these stories to promote your cause.

Tip Sheet: 10 Ways for Non-Profits to Use Case Studies to Promote their Cause

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^Slovic, Paul. “If I look at the mass, I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 2, No. 2, April 2007, pp. 79–95. (See especially Section 6).

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel Poling February 21, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Wow, I loved this!

I clicked on your post on LinkedIn because you had such a great title, I couldn’t help wanting know know what the rest of the post was about. (I’m a Star Trek fan)

I’ve heard this concept before– like you said, it’s been proven again and again. I think you’ve just said it in a way that I truly comprehend, at a time when I’m ready to listen and absorb.

Thanks! I appreciate it. :)


jdn74 February 22, 2012 at 2:07 am

Thanks for reading, Rachel. I’m glad you found the post useful.


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