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When Motivating Action, Less Is Often Much More

by Jeff Rosenberg, MSW

When it comes to getting people to take action in response to a pressing social issue or crisis, less is often more. You are more likely to do something if you see just one or two people who are impacted by a problem rather than the data revealing the large number of people negatively impacted. It sounds counter-intuitive, but science proves it.

Research reveals that if a reader is not told how many people are impacted by an earthquake, for example, or how many children are at risk of starvation due to drought or civil unrest, he or she will be more likely to donate money. One study, by Vastfjall, Peters and Slovic (2009) found that a solicitation portraying one victim will generate significantly more donations than a solicitation portraying two victims.

Why? When looking at a photo of an individual, the reader often creates a subconscious story about the featured individual and that person then becomes real and therefore relatable. When shown a macro-view of a social issue or crisis, big numbers can make the reader feel detached from the situation and like he or she can’t make an impact.

Crosby Marketing used this research-informed approach for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a global nonprofit focused on assisting the poor and vulnerable. Every Lenten season Catholics are asked to convert their Lenten sacrifice into action that promotes the greater good, in this case contributing to the CRS Rice Bowl. We worked with CRS to create an outreach campaign to increase engagement and donations. Take a look at the materials we developed — website home page, pledge form, weekly calendar of activities, and the Rice Bowl itself. Notice how often your eye is drawn to the emotion of a single child’s face.

In the first year of the new CRS Rice Bowl program, online donations increased 156%. And, within two years, overall participation in the program and revenue raised more than doubled. CRS does not overwhelm their audience with statistics. Rather, they use visuals to help their audience feel something. That’s good communication… based in science.

Jeff Rosenberg, MSW

EVP, Nonprofits & Causes Practice Leader

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