News for Fundraisers – The Science of Compassion


Fundraisers -Research Reveals How Compassion Can Be Generated From Small Things In Common.

Dr. David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, writing in the New York Times, reports that compassion can be closely tied to an even minor sense of commonality, which does not necessarily need to involve great moral issues or crises.

This research tells us what can work best in convincing people to support NGOs, charities, and aid agencies. This study also provides a fresh angle on techniques that can be incorporated into social media fundraising videos, which I will address below.

Dr. DeSteno’s findings are based on a series of scientific experiments carried out with psychologist Paul Condon and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Here is part of what Dr. DeSteno writes in the Times.

“Our hunch was that compassion is easiest to feel when you have a sense of commonality with someone else. So we paired up participants in teams: one real participant and one confederate. First, they had to tap their hands on sensors to tones played over earphones. In some cases the tones led them to tap their hands in synchrony; in other cases, the tones led them to tap their hands in a random mismatching manner.”

Dr. DeSteno went on to say in the NY Times piece that something as minor as tapping in synchrony with another person generated compassion for that person.

He added: “What does this mean for cultivating compassion in society? It means that effortful adherence to religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. There is nothing special about tapping in synchrony; any such commonality will do. Increased compassion for one’s neighbour, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity.

“What these results suggest is that the compassion we feel for others is not solely a function of what befalls them: if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves – even a relatively trivial one – the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.”

How can Dr. DeSteno’s research be applied to fundraising? You will probably have your own ideas on that. Let me add my own. As some of you know I am an advocate of serial storytelling, in which a series of short video webisodes provide on ongoing and unpredictable real life drama, with suspense over what will happen next to selected victims, that can attract an empathetic social media following among potential donors. By folding Dr. DeSteno’s compassion research into serial storytelling, you can use everyday life situations to help establish empathy among donors.

For instance, pointing out in passing that a woman in a drought stricken village has no water with which to wash her face is trivial compared to the broader issue of the drought. However, the brief face wash reference, while kept to a minor point, can plant an important seed of empathy among audiences. No, you don’t ask for donations so someone can wash their face. But many westerners can, perhaps without even thinking about it, identify with such discomfort. It helps, in a tiny way, to build empathy. Compassion fatigue is preventing a lot of donations because ordinary people are overwhelmed by the gigantic nature of humanitarian crises because they just can’t identify personally with suffering on an epic scale. But when you establish small, more palatable, pathways to empathy you stand a better change of donor engagement on the big issues.

There are many ordinary aspects of life that are common to victims and donors. Cooking, emotions, shopping, teenagers, spouses, and many more issues, when woven into serial storytelling of a humanitarian crisis, can help build stronger compassion as a trigger to active support.

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