Empathy – the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings
While sympathy is compassion for someone else’s situation, empathy is feeling their pain.
Sympathy keeps its distance. Empathy is a powerful connection to someone else.
We’ve evolved to feel empathy because it’s useful in understanding other people.
Studies suggest brain cells called mirror neurons might be key to social behavior. These cells might drive our ability to empathize.
Being able to feel what others feel allows us to build relationships. It’s an important part of how we communicate.
Fundraisers need to understand empathy.
You probably chose your career because you’re moved by needs in the world. Stimulating empathy in others can help us raise money.
We all have different empathetic responses. But researchers writing in the New York Times contend empathy isn’t a fixed personality trait. It’s something that can be learned. They show people can increase their empathy for others.
Some people have such a highly developed sense that they literally feel another’s pain. Most of us balance empathy with a self-protective distance.
If you’re trying to persuade someone to make a decision – in this case, a donation – you depend on emotion. We make decisions with our feelings, then rationalize that choice.
That’s why logical arguments will fall flat when a moving story will work.
But there are barriers to feeling empathy:
- Those people are not like me
- I can’t afford that much (time, money, caring, etc.)
- I’m powerful and don’t need the social capital
How can you get past the barriers?
Stories change the brain. Stories transport your potential donor to the scene. They are the most effective way of communicating. And they’re better remembered than a list of facts.
Stories can also help hold someone’s attention. (A scarce resource and getting scarcer.)
Use sensory language.
Words that trigger our senses go right to the emotional parts of our brain. That can overcome the rational instinct to avoid empathy. Think texture, sound or smell:
His old coat was scratchy but warmer than the icy cement.
The fresh white bandage covered an oozing burn – and a broken heart.
Show the action you want someone to take.
Video or even images of other people being helpful can trigger the desire to be helpful. We’re good at reading intention by watching others. Scientists detect greater action in the mirror neuron area of the brain when we see someone pick up a cup to drink than pick up a cup to clear the table.
Look them in the eye.
We’re compelled to look people in the eye – to read there what we need to know. Even if those eyes are on a piece of paper or a screen, they still draw our attention. The emotion captured in someone’s eyes communicates so much and triggers our own emotions. What do you feel when you look at the picture above?
Put your reader in the story.
It’s easier to feel empathy for people we perceive as being like us. Help them along with your language.
Imagine you’re a scared 8-year-old boy…
How would you feel if…
Focus on one person in need, not the bigger problem.
We get cautious about empathy when we sense the problem is huge and will overwhelm us. Offer a solution within the grasp of your reader.
Your gift of $25 will make sure she gets the medicine she needs to survive.
Use social proof.
Powerful people tend to be less empathetic. But even powerful people have other people they depend on. They have reputations that matter to them. Social capital can be motivating for them where simple empathy is not. Once they perceive themselves as part of a group, they might feel more empathetic.
Tell them what other people like them are doing. (Perhaps even trigger the fear of being left out.)
Many people in your town have already stepped forward to help. But without you, this project might not succeed.
The really good news is that acting on empathy-driven urges makes us feel better.
Evolutionary biology gave us empathy. It’s good for society as a whole and good for individuals as well. An article in Psychology Today explains that prosocial behavior and social connectivity are key to well-being. Giving makes us feel happy. Knowing we’ve been able to help makes us feel better about ourselves.
So how are you using this powerhouse of fundraising? Do you have any great examples to share? Please let me know in the comments!
Photo by Victor Bezrukov (Port-42) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Another fantastic article, thank you. Came at the perfect time. Erin
Mary Cahalane says
So happy to read that! Thank you, Erin.
claire axelrad says
Couldn’t agree more Mary! Darwin is credited with “Survival of the Fittest” but research coming out shows he was really all about “Survival of the most Empathic.” The new science of altruism, building on the physiological underpinnings of compassion, reveals that what’s good for charity, and society, is also good for donors. Here’s one article, among many, I’ve written on the topic. http://www.clairification.com/2011/12/08/survival-of-the-most-loving-and-loved-aka-why-do-so-many-charities-have-%E2%99%A5%E2%99%A5%E2%99%A5-in-their-logos/
Mary Cahalane says
Excellent! Thanks, Claire!
Michael Selissen says
Nice post, Mary. You captured the essence of why it’s important to connect with supporters at an emotional level.
One of the challenges organizations face is finding universal themes that help audiences identify with the stories’ heroes. Themes that go beyond “beneficiary discovers agency and all is well.” I touched on this idea in an article: http://csic.georgetown.edu/magazine/riding-train-importance-meaning-nonprofit-stories/
Also came across an interesting example recently from Feeding America. While the narrative is about the role that food pantries play, it’s also about rediscovering a life’s calling — something we can all relate to. Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00QCni8Itt0