Campaigns to raise money for colleges and other philanthropic causes, at once an act of psychological appeal and financial solicitation, are increasingly the subject of research by scholars of altruism. A conference here last weekend illuminated the status of the field, showing what approaches seem to work best and what conventional wisdom may be open to question.
Scholars have found that fund-raising appeals do best when they are crafted around a single gripping image, that informing prospective donors about big gifts by their peers helps expand giving, and that holding an athletic marathon -- or even a walk over smoldering coals -- might do more to encourage donations than a picnic or gala ball. ...
In one experiment described at the conference, researchers found that information from a charity about the scope of a crisis may dilute the emotional impact of an image of a single victim. One group of subjects in the experiment was shown a photograph of Rokia, a 7-year-old girl in Mali who was facing starvation. A second group was shown the same image along with information about the scale of poverty in Africa. The image of Rokia, without the accompanying statistics, won the charity more money.
"It really puts fund raisers in a fix," said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and one of three researchers who conducted the study. "They want to appeal to the mind and the heart. But if they do, there's a real risk of undermining the heart."
In another study, Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, found that people were more sympathetic to a single starving child than they were to two children facing the same plight. ...
"We cannot wrap our minds around two people as well as around one," said Mr. Slovic. He said the study showed that people's instincts failed them when responding to genocide, famine, and other large-scale crises.
People are also less able to empathize with suffering that takes place far away than a crisis in their own backyard. ...Donors also prefer to spread their support among many organizations, even if it means their favorite cause receives less money or their gifts are less effective.
...Many donors are also turned off by the prospect that their gifts might be spent on marketing or other overhead costs -- which they might perceive as wasteful -- rather than on programs. ...
In a second study, Mr. Olivola found that participants in a group decision-making game who were required to stick their hands in freezing water before contributing to a collective pool of money gave more than those who did not have to suffer before they donated.
Mr. Olivola attributed the results of the studies to a phenomenon he dubbed the "martyrdom effect."
"When you have to work hard and suffer for a cause, then you become more involved and more motivated to help that cause," he said.
Some of this reminds me of intuitions drawn from a different context for giving: the donation of organs. There is considerable anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of attractive "poster children" as potential recipients, without much correlation to urgency of need or plausible indicia of "deservingness." It's not clear to me what lessons should be drawn from this phenomenon.
The article concludes as follows:
Many speakers at the conference noted the challenges of evoking sympathy, guilt, and other emotions that might induce people to donate.
"The tears have been dried off," said Mr. Slovic, the psychology professor at Oregon. "The question is, How do we put the tears back on?"