The effect of emotion and empathy on donations

Ariely presents the idea that emotion and empathy are major factors in a person’s charitable behavior. Identifiable victims, those who evoke emotion through closeness and vividness, tend to receive more money and attention than events that effect large numbers of people. This concept aligns with the lessons from my marketing ethics course, where the strategy for marketers working for charities use emotion and relatability to increase donation revenue.

It is irrational that most people exhibit a stronger response to helping one person, when the same action could provide a greater benefit to a group. Ariely mentions an experiment performed by Deborah Small in which participants were given information regarding a food shortage in Malawi and $5. Participants received information describing the effect of a donation on a young child’s life, or statistics on the scope of the starvation (which affected 3 million people). Participants tended to donate twice as much for the individual child when compared to the knowledge of starvation affecting a large population.

I see the identifiable victim phenomenon as a result of two things: “drop-in-the-bucket” effect and selfishness. People are more likely to donate when they think their money would make a difference. Regardless of the fact that both sets of information would result in a donation to the same charity, with the same net effect, people are inclined to donate more when they feel they have an effect on a life. This brings me to the second point of selfishness. Donations are a charitable act, but the number of people who donate out of altruism are very small; rather, many people donate to make themselves feel good.

The ALS ice bucket challenge from 2014 is a great example of a successful marketing campaign that exemplifies the feeling of gratification that drives donations. Firstly, I want to admit that the idea was ingenious and the spread over social media could not be classified as anything other than a success for the ALS Association. However, the virality of the challenge and the social pressure through tagging friends had a larger impact on donations than an understanding of the actual cause. I don’t intend to marginalize or depreciate the importance of the disease, and I understand that awareness was part of the success, but many of the people who ended up participating in raising awareness or donating to the cause had no idea what ALS stood for. The money has helped many people cope with their ALS symptoms and has even led to a breakthrough of understanding the disease one year after the social phenomenon. Yet, I still wonder if the money could have been put to better use.

It is hard to say that the donations were a bad thing, but on a broader scale, the $100 million raised through this campaign could have benefited other causes. Many of the donations were one-time events where the participants would be unlikely to continue with regular donations to any cause. Other charitable organizations would benefit from a portion of that money, but for these one-timers, the likelihood of another donation would be lessened. This is all speculative, but I believe there would be a trickle-down impact on other charities.

The scariest part of this whole event was the similarity of this campaign to a viral film in 2012 that had a similar effect in raising $20 million. KONY 2012 was a video made by Invisible Children to raise funds to help stop an African warlord who runs the Lord’s Resistance Army. Invisible Children then put forth a campaign that included organizing community gatherings and selling packages of stickers, posters, and other items to promote these gatherings. The success was founded in the spread of the event through social media, and like the Ice Bucket challenge, most participants had little or no knowledge of the actual spending. In the end, the restricted revenue (revenue used for designated programs) was near $1 million, while the expenses exceeded half the amount of the donations. The donations were used to fund marketing campaigns, raise awareness, and produce inventory for sales, essentially cycling the money to create more money. The money that was put towards the actual cause was a pitiful percentage of all donations with questionable impact. Currently, the organization is fighting to stay afloat with a deficit that exceeds three times of their annual donations. I admit I fell for this campaign three years ago, which has caused me to be more wary of the actual effect of donations. After sitting through multiple marketing classes and re-watching the video, I see the ingenuity in the targeting and emotional appeal of the video to a young audience.

Where the money went
Where the money went

I have learnt that ethics is not simple. Most of the time, there is no “right” answer, or a “most ethical” decision. For example, if I had $1000 to donate, should I donate to a cause that has a personal attachment? How about one that provides the most utilitarian benefits? What if a charity has lower operational costs, but is less effective in their use of my donation? Similar to many other decisions that we may make, donations should require research and caution. Emotion will always play a role, but rational thinking makes for the best long-term decisions.


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