Insights from a journalist, psychology research and some tips


How do you motivate people to help end suffering halfway around the world?  That is the dilemma Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times pondered after many years of reporting from Africa about the AIDS crisis and the hunger and suffering in Darfur, Sudan.

Those communicating on behalf of non-profits in the United States face some of the same challenges — figuring out what works to engage donors and volunteers.

Savvy communicators have known for some time that you need to put a human face on those who will benefit from the philanthropy.  People are more likely to get involved if they see how the non-profit helps real people.

Similarly, people are motivated by positive, success stories of people overcoming odds. Writing in Outside Magazine, Kristof said stories he wrote about an 11-year old AIDS orphan in Swaziland who had to raise 2 younger sisters “fell flat.”  Contrast that with a column about a Pakistani rape victim who started a school with some compensation because she felt education was the way to change attitudes. This single column generated more than $100,000 in checks for her.

Research in social psychology suggests that we intervene when our efforts seem to make a big difference.  One experiment found that people are willing to pay for a water treatment facility to save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp with 11,000 people in it, but are much less willing to pay for the same facility to save 4,500 lives when the camp has 250,000 inhabitants.

Psychology professor Paul Slovic explains that saving a large proportion of a group is very satisfying, while saving a small proportion seems like a failure – even if its a high number.  This finding follows a large body of research that suggests “people do good things in part because it feels good,” Kristof writes.

Tips for motivating volunteers and donors:

1. Tell stories that bring a human face to the issue or problem – a single child or adult to illustrate the many who are affected.

2.  Inspire hope, not guilt, by focusing on an individual who is overcoming hardship.

3.  Make Helping Manageable and Meaningful to the Donor. Structure giving levels so small amounts can have an impact. 

Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, appeared on Oprah to publicize their new book, Half the Sky, about educating and empowering women. Oprah set up a special area on her web site so viewers could “buy” something tangible:  $7 for textbooks for a schoolgirl or $29 for a girl’s school uniform.  She raised $3.5 million in a week.

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What do you think motivates donors?  Please add a comment below.