This common psychological phenomenon is affecting your fundraising

Woman sits thinking while a drawing of a colourful brain floats above her head

I was standing on the subway platform recently, waiting impatiently for the next train, and an ad for a well known charity caught my eye.

At first, I was drawn in by a powerful photo of one child my donation could help - but then, everything went off the rails.

My eyes started to glaze over as they threw number after number at me – how many people served, how many locations they have, how many years ago they were founded…

It was about as compelling as reading through my tax return (apologies to my beloved accountant!)

I’ve noticed a resurgence of large and overwhelming numbers in fundraising communications recently.

400,000 children helped!

650,000 meals served!

500,000 lives saved!

Logically, it seems to make sense – why not use numbers to demonstrate the incredible impact of a donors support? Or make a compelling case for the urgency and huge scope of the crisis you’re tackling?

The problem is, we humans are not logical creatures.

As one researcher put it succinctly:

We are numb to numbers.

The phenomenon has been named the collapse of compassion.

Faced with many people who need help, compassion diminishes – and some research indicates the more people perceived to need help, the lower the levels of compassion.

The theory is that this may have a protective effect – when we feel overwhelmed, the brain tends to ‘down-regulate’ emotions.

So, what to do instead?

Tell a great story.

We all know we’re supposed to be telling more stories in our fundraising – and there’s a foolproof recipe for great storytelling that has the power to deeply connect with, and motivate, your donors.

Why does storytelling work?

When we hear a great story, two neurochemicals get released into our brains: oxytocin and cortisol.

Sometimes referred to as the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin is released when people snuggle up, or bond socially, and plays a key role in mother-child bonding.

It creates feelings of empathy, caring and generosity – when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate.

Cortisol may be familiar to you as the “stress hormone” – poor cortisol has gotten a lot of bad press lately, with some outlets going as far as calling it public health enemy #1.

Despite the negative publicity, cortisol is not all bad – in fact, it actually plays an important and necessary role in helping us focus, and in keeping our attention.

There have been some interesting studies on the connection between giving, and oxytocin and cortisol.

In one of the best known studies, neuroeconomist (yes, there is such a thing!) Paul Zak showed participants a video telling an effectively structured story, and then gave them the opportunity to share money with a stranger in the lab.

The likelihood that they shared with a stranger, and the amount of money they gave rose the more oxytocin was present in their bloodstream.

So, the moral of the story?

Tell more effectively structured stories – and avoid using numbers that may overwhelm our compassion.

Emma Lewzey, CFRE is an award-winning fundraising expert with 20+ years experience raising over $100M across the arts, education, health and human services sectors. Find out how to raise more 5, 6 and 7-figure donations your non-profit - book your free Major Gift Strategy Session now.

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