What “One Suffering Person = More Fundraising Success” Means For Non-Profits

I found myself nodding and responding to this this NPR story by Guy Raz this morning. Enough to write up a quick note. The takeaway is that if we’re faced between giving to a person vs. a cause of many persons, the solitary former wins. Here are two striking quotes from the story:

When people give to charity, they’ll give far more money to a single suffering person than to a population of suffering people

…tell donors about even two hungry children, or give them statistics about hungry children generally, and donations will fall by half.

I find this entirely unsurprising.

I remember a boss wondering/fulminating years ago after a mediocre fundraising cycle finally sputtered to an end: “Thousands are in need. But we care more about one Jessica-down-the-well or one hurt bird in an NYC building. Why the hell is that?!” She was frustrated, and rightly so. But the thing is, we give precisely because it’s ONE Jessica or bird or two hungry kids.

Why? Because we think we can make a difference with that one soul. Heiffer International understands this really well. I can singlehandedly put my mocha (or ______fill in the blank with vice/regular treat of your choice) money towards one action and make a tangible, sometimes very immediate, and long-lasting difference. I can buy one cow, a hive of bees, a flock of chicks, and not just save a child or a family not just from starvation, but also help fund a better, self-sufficient future for them.

A genocide in Darfur? An entire society brutally repressed in Burma? Millions not just starving but possibly brain-washed in North Korea? Resettlement for refugees at Dabaab, the world’s largest refugee camp?

An aerial view of the world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab

Arial view of the refugee camp in Dabaab*. As of 10/2011, the camp supported more than 450,000 people with up to 1,500 more coming in every day.

I could pool in all my mocha money and mobilize my entire network, but unless I’m Nancy Brinker, Angelina Jolie, or Hillary Clinton, it’s not likely to make a damn dent in the lives of the people who live in that picture above. Oh, it’ll also wear me out financially and emotionally.

So it makes perfect sense to isolate the one story that resonates and gives your fundraising issue a face that I can identify with, that will haunt me, and will make me think, “Dammit, that could be me/my kid. I have to do something and I can!” Giving up isn’t an option. But in the absence of major pockets, connections, or star power, therein lies the fundamental challenge for every non-profit I’ve ever crossed paths with.

By the way, you’ll notice that this is old story. Raz filed it back in November 2011 – in other words, traditional holiday giving season. So why did it pop up this morning in my facebook feed? Because it just got re-posted by Razoo, the DC-based startup whose fundraising platform many non-profits use. And the re-post is with good reason, I should think.

The holidays may be over. But if you’re a non-profit, or perhaps just someone with great passion for a cause and trying to make a difference, now’s the time of year when you’re either doing or should be doing the following:

  1. Looking at taxes and taking stock of all donations that came in from November on through the beginning of the year with checks that cleared over the new year.
  2. Heading into the next giving season – Lent and Holy Week.
  3. Laying the ground work for the next major giving cycle. Because this November may be months away yet, but it’s going to be a doozy – the general election.

That last bit about the election is going to be the serious challenge. How do you frame your story, present your facts, and make a really compelling case for your donor’s dollars if s/he is being heavily courted by the DNC and the RNC? Particularly because everyone can now donate as little as $10, online, easily, and therefore have their dollars earmarked or claimed that much faster?

Dear non-profits and fundraising professionals, there’s your mission. Should you choose to accept it.

* Per Oxfam: Dadaab is currently supporting more than 450,000 people (October 2011), with up to 1,500 more coming in every day. Actor and Oxfam Ambassador Scarlett Johansson visited Dadaab in September 2011, to shine light on the drought and food crisis that continues to unfold across East Africa.

“Even when you’re there, taking it in with your own eyes, it’s impossible to really take in those figures. Between the tents, people are walking to and from the water stations or simply wandering from tent to tent, hoping to find family, or people from their local communities.”

Despite the dangers, thousands of refugees every week are making the journey, walking for weeks across the desert and braving attacks by armed robbers and wild animals.