I think it’s a gift. So let’s talk about empathy.
I am convinced that we can’t successfully communicate without empathy. Underline that for fundraising communications.
In fact, human decision-making is emotional. We decide based on our feelings, and then rationalize them later. So feelings of empathy are critical to move people toward doing good.
Rational discussion of thousands of people starving is simply too big for us to really understand. We shy away from it, feeling inadequate. Focus on one person and we know we can help. So we’re much more likely to do so.
I think empathy may be misunderstood. So first, let’s talk about what it is and is not.
Empathy is not pity.
Pity is feeling distressed when someone else is suffering. Pity can be condescending. It can move us to act – but I suspect that action may be as much to relieve our own bad feelings as to improve how someone else is feeling.
Empathy is not sympathy.
Sympathy is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. But like pity, sympathy is an outside perspective. When you feel sympathy, you feel concerned, but not distressed. Your expressions may mirror those of the person who is distressed, but you’re still seeing it from your own point of view.
Empathy is more.
Empathy is recognizing and feeling what someone else is feeling. It is the willingness to see someone from another’s perspective, not your own. To step into their shoes.
And that’s why empathy is so important.
Empathy changes how we relate to the people around us. We developed this way because it helped us survive. It’s crucial to the organization of society.
Let’s talk about empathy and science
Science interpreted by an English major. (You have been warned.)
So empathy is something we are gifted with. We have brain cells called mirror neurons. They fire both when you do something and when you see someone else do something. They help us feel what someone else is feeling.
There are two areas of our brain involved as well. The temporoparietal junction helps us think about others around us. And the inferior frontal gyrus, which we use for abstract thought.
When these two areas are strongly connected, we can pick up on social cues, facial expressions – all sort of hints – and understand what they tell us about what the other person is thinking or feeling.
But we’re not all equally gifted with our empathetic abilities. Some people have problems a brain region ( the right supramarginal gyrus). They’re more likely to project emotions onto other people than to pick up what others are sending.
Nurture and your material circumstances matter, too.
Researchers have found that richer people tend to be less empathetic. When you are comfortable, it’s harder to feel someone else’s discomfort. (Sad, isn’t it?) And bias shapes how much empathy we feel. (Sad again.)
So let’s talk about empathy and fundraising
Empathy is a tremendous asset for people involved in nonprofit work. And especially for fundraisers. When we empathize, it can be a great force for equity. Because when I feel what you do, it’s so much easier to understand your problem. And it’s hard to ignore it – because I’m feeling it, too.
Work at it
Still, empathy is not something you either have or don’t. Some people are naturally more empathetic. But you can develop greater empathy. One way is to meet and interact with people who aren’t like you. The broader your human experience, the more likely you are to experience empathy.
Work for it
Experience what others do. If it’s possible, go to where your organization’s work is. Talk to clients. Don’t watch the work in the soup kitchen, get in and experience it. It’s so much harder to understand your mission at a distance.
Work with others
Work with people who aren’t like you. Working together toward a common goal with people from different places or experience can help you develop a greater sense of empathy.
And one of my favorite suggestions: read more books. I’m talking fiction here, or perhaps biographies. Something that takes you into someone else’s perspective. It helps us understand other people’s thoughts and feelings – because the author is putting us right there.
Helping others feel more empathetic
If you’re a fundraiser, you want to encourage your donors and potential donors to feel empathy. But how?
Remember the reading suggestion above? Telling stories – stories rich with character and detail and most of all feelings – can help someone put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Bring them to the scene, use words that are tactile and full of emotion. Help them not just comprehend the problem but feel it.
This is not manipulation. This is an invitation to your reader (or listener) to feel more fully human. To experience something outside themselves.
Because empathy doesn’t just encourage us to do good, it helps us feel good, too.