Pop Art Numbers VS Stories

What Behavioral Science Tells Us about Stories and Math in Fundraising

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Excerpted from The Storytelling Fundraiser by Professor Russell James. The full book (along with many other fundraising resources) is available for free at Encourage Generosity.

For nonprofit managers, numbers are important. Numbers define success or failure. Numbers keep the lights on or off. Numbers can show impact.

But in fundraising, numbers are different. In fundraising, we enter an alternate universe where numbers don’t work the same way. In the fundraising world, numbers are still important. But they’re important in weird ways.

Fundraising is Story World, not Math World.

In the real world, suppose one store gives you a Coke for $1. Another gives you a Coke, a Pepsi, and a Sprite, all for $1. What happens? People buy from the second store.

But the fundraising world is weird. 

In one experiment, one group could donate to save one child. Another group could donate to save eight children. The cost to save one child was the same as the cost to save eight children. But people gave more when the request was for only one child.

The math doesn’t make sense. But the story does. The story of one empathetic character is compelling. The story of a mixed group of different people is complicated.

How NOT to solve math problems

For “numbers people,” this weird behavior is a serious problem. Mathematically, the right answer is obvious. Acting otherwise is inefficient. But people don’t choose the “right” answer. Can these math problems be fixed? The answer is surprising. The answer is, “Yes, but it’s a bad idea.”

Researchers ran experiments to fix these fundraising math problems. People were paid for another task. They were then asked to donate part of their payment. This would help famine relief in Africa.

Some people read statistics about the millions needing help. They donated 27% of their payments. Other people read about a specific child needing help. They donated 57% of their payments. 

This result is no surprise. Stories beat statistics. The story of one child is more compelling than statistics about millions.

For two other groups, the researchers tried to fix this problem. Before asking for a gift, they first explained the bias. They described how donors respond strongly to individual stories, but not to statistics. What happened?

As before, some people then read statistics about the millions needing help. They donated 25% of their payments. No big difference from the previous result. As before, other people read about a specific child needing help. They donated only 23% of their payments. This was less than half that from the previous experiment.

The logical message erased the bias in favor of the single victim story. It worked! But it worked by applying the brakes to giving. Further analysis showed why. Starting with the statistical explanation reduced the social emotion. This reduced the giving.

Was it just a poorly worded explanation? No.

In other experiments, the researchers tried other descriptions. They explained the statistics vs. story bias in other ways. These explanations also “worked.”

People no longer gave more to the individual story. But neither did they give more in response to statistics.

Be careful what system you trigger

Why did this happen? To answer this, it helps to know how people think about money. 

There’s a lot of research on this topic. But one fundamental concept appears repeatedly. (Different researchers use different labels, but the basic explanation is always the same.) Choices result from the interaction of two systems. One system is:

  • Social
  • Emotional
  • Automatic
  • Fast.

The other is:

  • Mathematical
  • Logical
  • Deliberate
  • Slow

The social-emotion system motivates charitable giving. Social-emotional story is the engine that drives giving. The math and logic system takes part too. But it contributes only as a brake on giving.

In experiments, pointing out math and logic errors “works.” The story vs. statistics bias disappears. But this works only by applying the brakes to giving. People act more logically, but they give less. In fundraising, that’s not a great result.

Another version of the previous experiment used this two-system idea. Before the donation request, some people first did math problems. Why? Because this “wakes up” the math-logic system. 

Again, this “worked.” It blocked the social emotion from individual story. After doing math, those reading about one child gave only 24% of their payments. Without math, people reading about one child had donated 57%.

But math didn’t help the power of numbers. After doing math, those reading the statistics donated just over 30%. This wasn’t significantly different than those who had not done math first.

“Waking up” the numbers system killed the social emotion of the individual story. But it didn’t help the statistics argument. In charitable giving, the math system works only as a brake, not as an engine.

Others have found the same thing. Waking up the math or finance side blocks the social emotion side. In experiments, reminding people about money or finances reduces:

  • Charitable giving
  • Willingness to help
  • Compassionate responses

The social-emotion-story side is the engine that drives giving. The math-logic side is only the brake.

Many fundraisers understand this intuitively. But this understanding can cause a different mistake with math. Math isn’t the motivator. That’s true. But math can be critical to making a gift happen. 

How is this possible? If math isn’t the motivation, how can math be good for fundraising?

Math can be good because donating is not only about motivation. Donating is also about cost.

An alumnus might be 100% motivated to give $10 million for a new library. But if she doesn’t have $10 million, that gift won’t happen. A gift results not just from motivation. It results from the intersection of motivation and cost.

Confusing motivation and cost leads to bad advice for fundraisers. This comes up most frequently in advice about tax benefits.

The misleading and oft-repeated scenario usually goes like this. A consulting group wants to learn about giving motivations. So, they ask some donors why they give. Almost nobody says that they give because of tax benefits. The group then tells fundraisers not to talk about tax benefits. This advice is readily accepted. Fundraisers are happy to avoid the hard work of understanding tax benefits.

This advice is common. And it’s wrong.

We’re left with a dilemma. Numbers, math, and finance can be a problem. They can interfere with the social emotion that motivates giving. But they can also be a solution. They can lower the cost barrier for making the gift.

We’ve got a problem: a math problem.  The answer? Know when you should be in Story World and when you should make those brief visits to Numbers World.

Looking for more ways to put science to work in your fundraising? Schedule a free 25-minute call with one of our expert Fundraisingologists. They will give you great free advice, and help you identify which Coaching+ program might be right for you. Click here to book your call.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • This is fascinating. I’ve worked in nonprofits and am also interested in decision-making and learning. I wonder if waking up the math/logic brain before exposure to emotional social media posts would help with misinformation resistance.


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