In a general sense, the larger the problem the less likely it is to elicit charitable giving. What can explain this paradox?

We give to the few but not to the many

When one person suffers we can empathize with them or their family, we can imagine what it must be like to experience some tragedy. We engage in what psychologists call social cognition mechanisms, processes that help us understand someone else’s thoughts goals or feelings and we can envision how our donation could make that person’s life a little better.

But, when a tragedy affects many people we think about the harm to the community, the number of people homeless, the size of the area affected by famine. We can’t empathize as easily with one person there might not even be any identifiable people whose stories are being told and we can’t imagine how our minor contribution could possibly make a difference in such a terrible situation, so we shake our heads we mutter at the unfairness of life and we move on.

As a general rule people are more likely to give when they can identify and empathize with specific people who will benefit from their generosity. This rule doesn’t mean that the only thing that matters is having a single identifiable target. Instead think of it as saying that the more identifiable the target, the more likely the giving. For example the charity Habitat for Humanity provides homes for needy families through donations of money and time from volunteers.

In one study, people in the community were asked to give money to Habitat for Humanity. They were either told that the needy family has been selected or that the family will be selected. More money was donated by people who were told that the family has been selected, even though the family was never named. People were motivated simply by knowing that there was a specific family they were helping.

Charitable giving is greater for an identifiable target

A consequence of this rule: giving is greater to an identifiable target, is that giving should also be reduced when people can’t or don’t empathize with those in need. We don’t empathize with the person who seems like an outsider, a member of a different group or someone not like us. Those people are dehumanized and, sadly enough, when people are so affected by an ongoing tragedy that they don’t seem like us anymore and they don’t engage or processes of social cognition they don’t elicit our empathy or are charitable gifts.

So, we are likely to give to identifiable targets, perhaps even more likely than we should and we are not likely to give when tragedies or continuing problems lead to mass suffering. But, can we just teach people about this bias so they’ll become more generous to victims of large tragedies? A group of behavioral economists tried to do exactly that, and for this they had research participants fill out a short survey about some unrelated topic and they paid them in cash for participating.

They then gave them a form in an envelope, the form told them that they could donate any part of their earnings to a charity and have to. They were just given the name of a well-known charity and statistics about the problem addressed, while the other half were given the name of the same charity along with a picture of a young girl and a description of her needs.

If they had stopped there this would’ve just been the standard identifiable target effect, people should give more when the young girl’s face and description were shown and, in one condition of the experiment, that’s exactly what the researchers found: people gave about half of their earnings when the young girl was shown, but only 1/4 of their earnings when statistics were provided.

We can’t just tell people and expect change

But, in another condition of the experiment they also told people about the scientific principle, much as I’m telling you now. They said that research shows that people typically react more strongly to specific people who see themselves into statistics about people with problems and they went on to give specific examples. The natural prediction for the second condition would be that teaching people about their own bias should help, they should give more money when victims are described through statistics, but that’s not what they found.

Giving actually went down. In both conditions people only gave about 1/4 of their earnings. Teaching people about their bias actually made things worse. People weren’t any more likely to give. So, the statistical victims in the deliberative thinking evoked by their instructions actually reduced people’s connection to the identifiable victims
I want to emphasize this point. We can’t just tell people that their decisions are biased and expect change. It’s more effective to defy ways in which people can use their biases as tools to make better decisions.

To encourage charitable giving there are two primary tools:

1. First I’d emphasize that giving comes apart from an internal sense of motivation, the warm glow we feel when helping others. If you are running a charity, you should make that motivation as tangible as possible. Build a community of givers, tell donors you are part of our community, you are one of us.

Provide testimonials not only for the people who benefit but from the people who give. Emphasize the success of past fundraisers not the challenge of reaching the goals, potential donors want to feel like winners they want to be part of something great. Don’t scare donors, celebrate them.

2. Second, I would also emphasize that people are more likely to give to identifiable other people in need, not to mass is affected by tragedy. After a natural disaster news coverage often focuses on its scope, the number of people affected, and the breath of the devastation. Interviews with victims describe how people were left homeless and in dire need of food and shelter, but your average American sitting in the living room chair safe within a sturdy home the images of devastation are distancing.

Generosity and heroism are part of us

It’s difficult to comprehend the major natural disaster, much less to identify with the victims. A better approach is to make the tragedy personal – tell stories about specific people in need humanize focus on the mundane the normality of life before the disaster, describe what specific people were doing beforehand, how they were thinking about what to eat for dinner or how to save for the kids future.

Don’t present generic disaster victims, but instead show people whose full lives have been disrupted by tragedy. Convincing people to sacrifice of themselves to help others can be an extraordinarily difficult task as any charitable fundraiser knows, but people can be extraordinarily generous and self-sacrificing when they see someone in need.

Wesley Autrey was an extreme example. Few of us will face such a terrible choice and even fewer will have the courage to risk their own life to save someone they don’t know, but there’s nothing really magical about wanting to help others. Other regarding preferences are part of the human condition, generosity and heroism come from people just like you and me.

And there is a second story about Wesley Autrey, one that humanizes him. About four months after his heroic act he again faced pressure, this time as a contestant on the game show Deal or no deal. He remained in the game until the very end turning down very large amounts of money on the chance that his briefcase contained $1 million, and in the end he walked away with $25.

He made the worst Deal or no deal contestant of all time, but there’s a small silver lining here: for his past heroism the television network rewarded him with a new car. So, we can’t guarantee that our actions, well intended as they may be, will lead to success, but but, by helping others we may end up helping ourselves.