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The Identifiable Victim Effect: When One is More Than Many

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Published December 17, 2013 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Marketing is simply business-speak for storytelling.

A story that resonates with your audience can inspire people to take action and get involved with your cause. And if you spend any real amount of time telling stories to your supporters, you’ll probably notice that the most effective ones tend to revolve around specific individuals. This happens for a reason– people are wired to connect emotionally with other people, not with abstractions.

So What is the Identifiable Victim Effect?

The identifiable victim effect refers to the tendency to offer greater assistance to an identifiable individual as opposed to a larger, unnamed or statistical group of people.

Last year, Karen Klein, a New York bus monitor was ruthlessly bullied by four middle school students. After a 10-minute video of the incident was posted online she received more than $700,000 through an online campaign that brought together more than 30,000 donors from over 84 countries. Similarly, the Ty Woods Memorial Fund, which was created by the SEAL NSW Family Foundation to benefit the family of the retired Navy SEAL who passed away in the 2012 attack on the Benghazi consulate, received tens of thousands of dollars in donations over just a few days. Both of these charitable cases shared a common thread: they had specific beneficiaries and focused on personal stories.

Because a story is more emotionally engaging than a set of statistics, it is more likely to rouse people to action. The savviest nonprofit marketers have long known this, and they have artfully weaved individual stories into their communications to increase support for their causes.

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1. Bridge the Emotional Gap

When it comes to charitable giving, emotions – more than logical reasoning – drive donations. A study by University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Deborah Small and her colleagues showed that more donations were generated by focusing on a single tangible victim than by focusing an a larger number of “statistical victims.” Not only that, they also found that introducing statistics alongside an individual victim’s story tended to lower the total amount donated. As it turns out, people donate largely based on “spontaneous affective reactions.” They are more likely to give when they can connect emotionally, rather than logically, and focusing on a specific individual helps foster this emotional connection.

The Takeaway:

Telling beneficiaries’ stories in your appeals can help you connect to potential donors on an emotional level. Visual media, including photo streams and videos from the field, are powerful ways to invoke action from potential donors, as they come face-to-face with your work and its impact.

2. Increase the Feeling of Impact

People want to know that their donations are making a real difference, and numbers don’t always provide a sufficient feeling of impact. When donors read about the plight of one person in an appeal, however, they have an easier time envisioning the specific impact they are creating. When you bombard them with statistics and numbers, on the other hand, they will likely find it much more difficult to figure out how their contribution fits into the larger picture. In fact, research performed by Dickert, Sagar, and Slovic showed that when people are asked to do mathematical calculations before reading a donation appeal, they wind up giving less.[1] Statistics, and the analytical mode of thinking they rely on, seem to lessen the emotional effect of appeals and negatively impact giving levels.

The Takeaway:

Supporters want to feel confident about their gifts’ impact. Whenever possible, avoid focusing on abstract statistics in your appeals and try outlining the outputs made possible by different-sized donations – e.g. $25 goes to a play therapy kit, $100 goes to a new well, $500 sends a child to school for the year. When supporters know exactly how their donations are going to be used, the outcome becomes more tangible, and the feeling of impact is enhanced.

3. Connect Supporters to a Story in Motion

Identifying specific beneficiaries as part of the story you are telling can help enhance the emotional connection for donors even further. In a field experiment examining donations to Habitat for Humanity, Small and Lowenstein aptly demonstrated this effect. The researchers presented participants with one of two options: some were asked to donate to a family receiving a new home when the family had already been selected and the rest were asked to donate to a family receiving a new home when the family hadn’t yet been selected. As it turns out, donations were significantly greater when the family had already been determined. The fact that the family was selected enhanced the tangibility of the appeal and gave donors more confidence that the project was already on its way to being successful.

The Takeaway:

It’s not always possible, but when you can, it’s a great idea to identify who will benefit from the fundraising effort you are conducting. Even if you can’t do this up front, providing specific success stories after the fact can help donors connect the dots between their giving and the ultimate impact created. Providing case studies, photos, or videos of completed projects are all great ways to close the loop with donors and help energize them for the next giving opportunity.

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