Understanding Patterns of Charitable Compassion

“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”   – Mother Theresa


The Identifiable Victim Effect

On October 14, 1987, 18 month-old Jessica McClure fell into a well in Midland, TX. After 58 hours, rescuers were finally able to pull her out of the well. In that time, her situation had become a media sensation and Jessica received more that $700,000 from donors across the United States. Why did donors feel so compelled to make a donation directly to this child instead of organizations that serve to rescue much larger populations of children in danger? This pattern of giving, known as “The Identifiable Victim Effect”, can be witnessed on a daily basis.

Peter Singer, author of “The Life You Can Save,”conducted an experiment to observe this behavior firsthand. The experiment involved three groups of participants who were each given monetary compensation for their participation. Each group of participants were presented with the opportunity to donate a portion of their compensation to an organization whose mission it was to help feed Malawian children in need.

  • The first group received information about the charity and about the hunger crisis in Malawi with the statistic that 1 million children were affected.
  • The second group was shown a photo of a young Malawian girl named Rokia. They were told that she was very poor and that their donations could greatly improve her life.
  • The third group was given the photo of Rokia as well as information about the charity (a combined, less detailed version, of the stories from the first two groups).

The second group gave almost twice the amount of donations that the first group gave. The third group gave slightly more than the second group.

Another study sought to measure the rate of “Compassion Fade” (a measure of the rate of decrease in action) as it related to the number of victims (1, 2, or 8). The results concluded that there was a much higher rate of “Compassion Fade” between the 1-2 victim condition than with the 2-8 victim condition. (Vastfjall, Slovic, Mayorga, Peters 2014) In other words, while the number of people in a group do matter, the distinction between an individual and a group (no matter what the size) was a key determinate in the levels of compassion shown towards the issue.


Sea Monkeys as a Model for Compassionate Behavior

Why are we more inclined to show compassion towards individuals as opposed to groups?

Carey Morewedge, a professor out of Boston University who studies the psychology of decision making, conducted a study along with his colleague J. Schooler to answer this very question. The inspiration for this study began when he purchased sea monkeys for his young daughter. The population of pet sea monkeys slowly dwindled from a few dozen to one, lone sea monkey. He noticed that his children became increasingly attached to this one sea monkey. Their concern for its wellbeing was in drastic contrast to the attitude that was attributed to the large mass of sea monkeys that had previously existed.

In the study, participants were shown an image that depicted 1, 2, 3, or 4 sea creatures. As the participants observed the selected image, the researchers measured their reactions to questions that concerned the possession of beliefs, desires, consciousness, and intelligence of the creatures. There was a direct correlation between the number of creatures present and the likelihood that participants would associate them with high-level mental states. The fewer creatures present, the higher the association. (Morewedge and Schooler, 2009)

The responses observed in this study fit into the larger idea that people have a strong connection to things which have tangible information vs. abstract information. What makes something tangible? The more detailed information we have about something, the more tangible that thing becomes. Likewise, the more “psychologically near” we are to something, the more tangible that becomes. “Psychologically near” is a a term used to describe how close the information is to our current state. For example, things that are occurring in the present are more “psychologically near” than things that occurred in the past. As individuals, we are more “psychologically near” an individual than a group. This nearness leads to a stronger connection to that individual as a result of the tangible information we have been able to process. That connection fosters a greater level of compassion.


How to Foster a Greater Sense of Compassion

  • Focus on individuals – This kind of appeal will create a deeper and stronger connection with your audience. As the studies have shown, the individual story has a greater resonance with potential donors compared to details/statistics about a group of people.
  • Give solid information – On a personal note, as a fundraising specialist, I’ve noticed that many campaigns leave out crucial details including budget breakdowns, project timelines, case studies/ success studies (if applicable). Not only does this type of information increase the tangibility of the issue at hand, it also helps foster a sense of trust in the organization.
  • Show the impact of the funds given – There’s one last concept I’d like to introduce in this article: Futility Thinking. Studies have shown that people are less likely to make a donation as the relationship between the help rendered applies to a smaller and smaller portion of those in need of help. For example, people given the chance to save 1500 people in a refugee camp that included 3000 people were much more likely to make a donation in comparison to people who were given a chance to save 1500 people in a refugee camp of 10,000 individuals. At some point, a person’s donation can feel like a drop in the ocean and the donor is left wondering what difference their one gift could make. In order to maintain a sense of significance for every donation received, some nonprofits have begun framing their campaigns in terms of each dollar’s impact. For instance, an educational organization may tell you that for every $50 received, a student receives the essential educational material for that semester.

Sources:  The Critical Link Between Tangibility and Generosity, Too Many to Care, Why Donors Don’t GiveCompassion Fade: Affect and Charity Are Greatest for a Single Child in NeedStatistical, Identifiable and Iconic Victims and Perpetrators 

Understanding Patterns of Charitable Compassion

Kindness is Good for You!!


We are all aware of the fact that the recipients of various forms of giving often experience some kind of positive effect. What might not be as obvious is the positive reinforcement that the donors experience as a result of their gift.

In order to further illustrate and expand upon this idea, I have selected four case studies that sought to examine the experiences related to the act of charitable giving.


A group of students (Dunn, Aknin, Norton) from the University of British Columbia and the Harvard Business School conducted a study in 2008 which observed the correlation between personal spending choices and happiness as well as altruistic giving and happiness.  In this study, participants where asked to keep track of their daily spending activity, their prosocial activity, and their current emotional state.

This research led to three important findings:

•  No connection was found between the personal spending amounts and the subject’s overall state of “happiness.”
•  The amount of the donation did not have a significant effect on a person’s happiness.
•  The way in which the money was presented did effect the level of happiness that the giving individual reported. The “giver” experienced a greater form of happiness when they spent time with the recipient.

(The portion of the study that quantified the effect of face-to-face vs remote giving involved the “givers” being given gift cards to Starbucks in $5 and 20$ amounts. Some were instructed to mail the gift cards to their recipients while others were instructed to take their recipient to a Starbucks in order to use the gift card in a face-to-face manner.)


Similar to the placebo effect, the volunteerism effect has been a subject of much interest within the health and social science sectors. In 1990, a study lead by Doug Oman of Berkeley University, began monitoring older individuals to see if there was a correlation between volunteer activities and personal health. Over 2,000 adults over the age of 55 in Marin County, CA were included in the study. The following results were published in 1999 titled “Volunteerism and Mortality Among Community-dwelling Elderly.”

(A quick note about the methodology of this study: Participants were evaluated and placed into 5 different groups determined by their overall physical health and daily health practices.)

After 9 years of observation, the study found that elderly individuals who engaged in at least two different forms of on-going volunteer activities were 44% less likely to die over a five year period than individuals who did not regularly engage in volunteer work.


In 1990, Howard Andrews, a psychology professor at Colombia University, ran a study involving  3,296 individuals who self-reported their experiences related to volunteer service.

  • 95% of the respondents noted a greater sense of physical and mental wellbeing immediately following their volunteer activities.
  • 78% of the respondents continued to experience a heightened sense of well-being 7 days after their initial service.
  • Those who volunteered reported that they felt healthier that 90% of people their age.

On an interesting side note: The people who volunteered with strangers had a much greater feeling of happiness compared to those who volunteered for friends and family. Andrews related this to the idea that those serving people they knew were more invested in a positive outcome whereas those who volunteered with strangers did so for the positive reinforcement.


In 2007, two researchers, Kennon M. Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky, set out to understand the key components to a person’s happiness. They determined that each individual’s happiness was composed of the following elements: a “set point” (usually identified as genetic factors) 50%, circumstances 10%, and intentional activities 40%. In their study, they were surprised to find that even though the economic situations of Americans in today’s world are much better off than those 50 years ago, their levels of happiness were not correlated to that change. Circumstances are transitory, they change, with or without a person’s control. The one piece of this equation that can be completely controlled, is the nature of our intended actions.

Sonja Lyubomisky has since expanded upon her thesis with the hypothesis that altruism, kindness is an intentional action that leads to happiness. In one study, Lyubomisky had students complete a 6-week study in random acts of kindness. They were to complete a total of 35 random acts meeting the following criteria: 1) The act had to benefit someone. 2) It must involve giving something away (time, effort, money, resources, etc.). The group of students that engaged in the random acts of kindness reported a greater sense of overall happiness compared to the control group. Those who completed a week’s worth of actions in one day (5 random acts of kindness) reported an even greater sense of happiness.


There is a expanding amount of knowledge about the nature of kindness and well-being. Perhaps this emergence of interest is due to our continued development as a modern society. While the world still faces incredible obstacles, many of us are fortunate enough to turn our thoughts towards our intentional actions. The idea that kindness, whether it be in the form of resource donation or volunteer work, is good for us. It’s even better for those that provide it.

Here’s a recap of some of the major findings of the presented case studies:

  • It doesn’t matter what amount of money is donated, the more personal you make your act of kindness, the better you will feel.
  • Elderly individuals who are active volunteers have a 44% lower mortality rate (over five years) than those who do not regularly volunteer.
  • 95% of volunteers felt an immediate sense of happiness after their service. For 78% of those people, that feeling carried out through the following week.
  • An individual’s happiness is a composition of circumstance, genetics, and intentional actions.
  • Performing random acts of kindness can make you happier, especially if you commit more than 1 per day.

Sources: Volunteerism and Mortality Among Community-dwelling Elderly, Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness, 5 Ways Giving is Good for You, psychcental, Psychology Today,  Is it Possible to Become Happier?, Uncommon Knowledge, Sonja Lyubomirsky

Kindness is Good for You!!



Think about the point of view of the donor before running a crowdfunding campaign.

Make a $25 donation towards a cause-related crowdfunding campaign. Check out the campaigns on Indiegogo, GoFundMe, Kickstarter…..browse the campaigns and pick the one that you want to donate to. Once you’ve made the donation, come back to this article.


Ask yourself why you made the donation to that particular campaign.


  • Familiarity: Did you already know about this organization? Were you already aware of the issues that this campaign is seeking to address?
  • Message: Was the message (mission) of the campaign clear and easy to understand? Did the pitch text go over the plans/budget/timeline of the proposed project?
  • Emotionally Connected: Did you make a donation towards a campaign that was related to a topic that you are passionate about? Did you feel a personal connection between yourself and the campaign’s beneficiaries?
  • Engaging: Did this campaign stand out from the other campaigns? Was there a visual component that attracted your attention and/or maintained your attention?
  • Social: Have people in your social network shared this campaign? Are high profile individuals or organizations connected to this campaign?

Were there any other reasons that affected your choice? Were there campaigns that you passed over? If so, why?

Even though nonprofit crowdfunding is a relatively new fundraising approach, there have been many cause-related campaigns in the past 7 years (crowdfunding platforms began emerging in 2008). These campaigns are your greatest resource.  The best kind of preparation you can do before creating a plan for your campaign is to review other successful campaigns. 




Using Persuasive Rhetoric to Increase Your Fundraising ROI

Many people would agree that the “Ask” is the most crucial aspect of fundraising. You must be able to ask for the resources that your nonprofit needs in a way that maximizes your audience’s likelihood of receiving an optimal amount of donations.

Persuasion, or rhetoric, is the art of discourse where the author/speaker communicates in such a way as to affect the beliefs of the audience. Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric breaks this discourse into three categories:

Ethos: relates to the credibility of the presenter
Pathos: relates to the audience’s emotion
Logos: relates to the clarity/consistency (logic) of the message 

It is important to recognize the roles that these three aspects of rhetoric play in fundraising appeals. Some individuals will respond on an emotional level, while others are motivated by logical, pragmatic assertions. To have a persuasive appeal that results in the optimal amount of funds raised, you must address all three areas.


A warm glow in the after life?
The determinants of charitable bequests.

As an example of the effectiveness of rhetoric, the following study by Sarah Smith and Michael Sanders analyzed the effect that prompts had on the probability that individuals would make charitable bequests as part of their estate planning.

The study was set in the context of a phone session with a lawyer regarding estate planning. One group was given a weak ask: “Now that you’ve looked after your family and friends, I’d like to talk you about charity. Would you like to leave a charitable gift in your will?” The second group was given a stronger prompt: “Now that you’ve looked after your family and friends, I’d like to talk to you about charity. Many of our customers like to leave a gift to charity in their will. Are there any charitable causes that you’re passionate about?”

The Results:

Weak Ask: Participants who received the weak prompt were 11.3% likely to make a contribution.

Strong Ask: Participants who received the strong prompt were 17.3% likely to make a contribution.

This study clearly illustrates the effectiveness of persuasive rhetoric. By crafting a prompt that touched upon the emotions of the audience as well as establishing a credible speaker, the likelihood of an individual making a donation increased by 6%.


Using Persuasive Rhetoric In Practice:

Organizations must develop their own compelling rhetoric in order to reach potential donors. There are, however, some general suggestions that help establish these persuasive prompts:

  • According to Herschell Gordon, the most powerful word in an effective appeal is “you.”
  • The post-script is far more likely to be read than any other section (so make it count).
  • In Rosalie Maggio’s book “How to Say It,” she suggests the use of strong words and phrases, such as the ones detailed below:

aid, advocate, essential, grateful, necessity, relief, rescue, urgent, as soon as you can , come to the aid of, a campaign to support/protect/stop, as generous as possible, our immediate needs are, join forces, make this possible

Sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, buffersocial, Durham Tech, University of Bristol, How to Say It, The Centre for Market and Public Organisation


Charitable Giving – A Statistical Overview

The idea for this site grew out of my interest in social behavior observations as a way of establishing effective online fundraising strategy. Before diving into the material, I’ve put together a short, statistical overview of recent fundraising trends. Unless otherwise noted, the following information has been gathered from various sources concerning charitable giving in the United States for 2014.

  • Americans gave $358.38 billion in 2014, a 7% increase from 2013 (which was 2% of the GDP).
  • The average household contribution was $2,974.
  • Donations from individuals accounted for 75% of all contributions. If you add in gifts and bequests from family foundations (which are essentially gifts from individuals) the total becomes 90%.

Breakdown of 2014 Charitable Donations by Recipient Organization

(in billions)


  • 1,507,231 – number of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations in the United States
  • 500,868 – number of nonprofits with less than $1,000,000 in revenue
  • 2.25% – percentage of organizations that account for 90% of total reported revenue
  • 98.4% of high net worth households gave to charity
  • 64% of contributions were made by women

Top Ten Generous States in 2012 

(based on % of income for individual charitable contributions – the national average is 2.1%)


  • 75% of donors spend 2 hours or less researching nonprofits before giving.
  • Online fundraising increased by 8.9%.
  • Monthly donors give 42% more in one year than one-time donors.
  • The average nonprofit crowdfunding campaign raised $9,237.55.
  • For every 1,000 fundraising emails sent, a nonprofit raises $17.
  • 10% of annual giving occurs on the last 3 days of the year.

Sources: Charity Navigator, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, National Center for Charitable Statistics, Nonprofit Tech for Good, Blackbaud

Charitable Giving – A Statistical Overview