6 Ways Nonprofits Can Overcome ‘Empathy Fatigue’

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This has been a tough year. We’ve been flooded by news and images of refugees from the ongoing crisis in Syria, warned about the spread of Zika, frightened and saddened by terrorist attacks and mass shootings and (barely) survived the seemingly never-ending presidential campaign and election.

As the negative news piles on, we become increasingly numb to it and less affected by tragedy. It may not be right or good, but it’s a fact. I recently heard Jeff Kositsky, director of San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness, call this “empathy fatigue.” Although he was speaking about the chronic issue of homelessness, the term applies more broadly. We’re unable to constantly operate in a hyper-affected state, and as we hear more and more bad news, it’s impossible for our empathy not to hit a ceiling.

So, what does this mean? Americans are hopeful, charitable and committed to advancing the causes they care about. In 2015, $373.25 billion was donated to charitable organizations (Giving USA), with 17.4% of all giving taking place in December (Blackbaud 2015 Charitable Giving Report). Clearly, end-of-year fundraising is important for nonprofits. But what can they do to overcome empathy fatigue and stand out among all the nonprofits clamoring for contributions? Below are a few suggestions from a communications perspective on how to keep donors engaged and feeling generous.

  1. Tell a personal story.

People love stories, and they relate better to other people than to organizations or ideas. So, whatever the cause, it’s critical to show what the organization does for actual people. Perhaps the best way to do this is to tell the story of one person’s experience. Show your audience that person’s journey—from the struggle to overcoming obstacles—in an emotionally engaging way. Demonstrate how the organization was able to help and indirectly illustrate what the world would look like without its advocacy or services.

Research has shown that people are more willing to contribute to causes when told about a single victim as opposed to a group (Kogut, Tehila; Ritov, Ilana, 2005). The “identifiable victim effect” suggests that people are more persuaded by vivid depictions of a flesh-and-blood individual than by a larger group or abstract statistics.

  1. Keep communications bite-sized and shareable.

Time is precious, so don’t burden potential donors with long messages. Whether by email or direct mail, keep communications short and to the point. Make sure anything you send digitally can be easily shared online. This extends your message’s reach. Engaging on social media is another way to communicate in short form, adding the benefit of a personal touch when responding directly or mentioning supporters by name in posts.

  1. Be visual.

People respond to images. Communicating with photos and videos can powerfully evoke empathy. Employ videos of people struggling, before-and-after photos or even an infographic that highlights programs and their measured impact. Images are also shareable and can encourage friends to spread the word.

Kiva, the online micro-lender, expertly uses photos to support personal stories and engage donors and lenders. (Kiva provides small loans to individuals and groups around the world who are trying to start their own enterprises. It engages the general public to serve as lenders and donors to the cause.) All of Kiva’s borrowers are profiled on its website with personal stories and a photo. These images and stories humanize what they’re asking for.

  1. Demonstrate success.

As with any investment or purchase, people want to know where their money is going and what they’re getting for it. Nonprofits should give donors a tangible example of how and where their money will be spent. This shows the impact of their donation. Other measures of success can include an organization’s grade or review on charity-rating sites like Charity Navigator and GuideStar. While these aren’t primary messages, they offer third-party confirmation that the organization manages its funds responsibly.

The ALS Association released an infographic outlining the impact of funds it received from its 2014 “Ice Bucket Challenge.” It showed the percent of total contributions that funded areas such as research, patient and community services, and public and professional education.

  1. Strengthen ties with existing donors.

While nonprofits are always looking for new donors, it’s critical to maintain and strengthen relationships with past contributors. This could be in the form of mailed thank-you notes, personalized emails that acknowledge past contributions, a donor listing on the organization’s website, or providing timely updates on project progress. There are many ways to strengthen these relationships, but the important thing is to show appreciation for donors having joined in your efforts.

After donating to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society last year, I got a phone call from a leukemia survivor thanking me for my support. It was totally unexpected but really touching. It put a face, or rather a voice, to the cause while at the same time showing the impact my donation could have. It made me feel more connected to the cause and led to another donation.

  1. Take it offline.

While online giving continues to grow, up 9.2% in 2015 over 2014, it still represents only 7.1% of all fundraising revenue (Blackbaud 2015 Charitable Giving Report). While incorporating digital communications (e.g., website, social media, email), continue appealing to potential donors through traditional channels, such as earned media, advertising, direct mail and phone calls.

By Amy Scarlett is group supervisor at Fineman PR in San Francisco.