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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Reshaping By Ones

Lifehacker recently linked to an interesting piece in Psychology Today which essentially discusses how people are wired to care more about individuals than groups, or as they put it, "Why Millions Can Die and We Won't Care." It's all rather interesting if somewhat unsurprising, but the examples they gave made me wonder why more charities (particularly tzedakos and/or schools) don't utilize this information to their advantage:


In [a] study people were paid to participate in an unrelated psychological quiz, and on the way out they were given the opportunity to donate up to $5.00 of their earnings to Save The Children. They were given three options:
  • They could donate to help Rokia, a 7 year-old Malian girl. The subjects were shown a picture of Rokia. They were willing to give $2.25.
  • They could donate to help the hundreds of thousands of children in eastern Africa who were starving. They were willing to give only $1.15.
  • The third option was to help Rokia specifically, but along with this request subjects were also given the statistics about the other starving east African kids. The same people who were willing to give $2.25 when it was just for Rokia, were only willing to give $1.40 when the request to help Rokia included information about the larger statistics!

Fascinating, right? Moreover:
Other studies showed similar results. For example, people would donate $11 to save one child but only $5 to save eight. The same goes for single events—like a tsunami—versus an ongoing event—like starving children.
One of the first thoughts that came to mind was the approach some schools have, where they basically require parents to either give or fundraise on behalf of the school ("give or get"). This is (perhaps accidentally) rather smart and effective: Firstly, it splits the burden up among hundreds of people, with a much greater net reach. But more specifically, the givers will identify their charity with the child of those parents who are asking for the funds, and this may make them more willing to give more money.

But more importantly, individual stories are always stronger. When schools focus on one individual story and why they need support to help that child's dream, it has a stronger impact on donors. Recently I found that even bringing the numbers down from an overall support to a specific support was incredibly effective. I am on the Alumni Board at Lander College, and we did a scholarship drive during the summer to help financially strapped students for this coming school year. Just upon hearing the individualized impact the prior year's small donations had been able to have made encouraged everyone on the Board to donate more themselves, and it was a really strong pitch to other alumni. As soon as I (and others) would mention how a dozen or so students had been able to more easily afford their tuition, people would suddenly be far more interested in offering their support. It seems clear that being able to directly associate giving with a recipient, and therefore feeling that one has made a (more) significant impact, helps encourage greater levels of charity.

It would seem a reasonable idea for Jewish schools (and charities) to attempt such pitches, whether focusing on individual children who need financial assistance, or by idealizing the education of a class through the persona of a single student, and how giving support will help that child succeed. It will not solve the current crisis, but perhaps it can lessen its impact just a bit.

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