This is a question explored in a recent NY Times article (“Empathy is Actually a Choice”, July 10, 2015) that examines a body of research that can inform advancement professionals in important ways. The research explores empathy and how it is applied and how it is influenced.
For instance, research indicates that people are more empathetic toward people of their own race, nationality or creeds. But with intent and effort, people can develop more empathy for those unlike them, if they want to try. The studies imply that the ability to feel empathy is not a fixed personality trait nor a limited resource.
People’s level of empathy can also be influenced by numbers. The article’s authors point out the saying, “ONE death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.” Harsh as this sounds, there is some truth to it. In the world of direct mail, we know that a touching story about one person’s plight pulls more contributions than the same plight of two people, which pulls more contributions than the same appeal affecting a group of people.
This phenomenon can also be effected by financial pressures.A study was cited where participants read about either one or eight child refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. Half of the participants were led to expect that they would be asked to make a donation to the refugee or refugees, whereas the other half were not. When there was no financial cost involved in feeling empathy, people felt more empathy for the eight children rather than for the one child, reversing the usual bias. It is as though the reader was protecting themselves from the financial obligation by not getting close to the one child.
Another study found that powerful people, even those who temporarily have a higher sense of power, exhibit less empathy. The explanation is because these people have less incentive to interact with others.
From the perspective of advancement professionals, these more “powerful” people are more likely to be our larger donors. They do tend to be harder to access, perhaps in part to protect themselves from expending what is perceived to be a limited emotional resource.
The conclusion of the authors is that empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be. If you ascribe to this conclusion, then it is our job as advancement professionals to design our donor engagement strategies with some of these lessons in mind as they pertain our your organization’s mission and the specific people who interact with specific donors.
We need to find strategies that can break through a person’s perceived, or unperceived limits on their ability to get emotionally invested in your cause. The way you present the plight of or opportunities for your mission’s beneficiaries may be instrumental in your success in elevating interest and/or lowering one’s emotional guard.
1. Consider the many barriers to your donor’s emotional investment in your cause.
2. Develop and then test some strategies to convey your mission appeal specific segments of your donor base.
3. Be aware of the barriers people might use to protect their emotional resources.
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