Peter Singer’s new book, The Life You Can Save, has sparked a growing debate amongst VillageReach staff. In his chapter, Why Don’t We Give More, he writes about the power of an identifiable victim — as opposed to group or mass need. He describes Paul Slovic’s research that identifies two distinct ways that we process a call for action. The first is derived from images or stories real or imagined that target an emotional response. The second is based on logic and abstract thinking and can take much longer before we act. Consequently, “the identifiable person moves us in a way that more abstract information does not.”
Certainly this concept is not new as non-profits flood their year-end marketing appeals with individual sponsorship programs and passionate stories of hardship and suffering. Kiva is a perfect example of the power of connecting to the individual as they market to donors with a personalized story and photo of each borrower. So what is our debate about you ask? The question in the office is: If this type of marketing works, and research shows that it does, shouldn’t VillageReach change its message to focus more on individual stories and less about systems?
Up until now, VillageReach has presented its message and for that matter, our brand, as a social enterprise. We are capacity builders and have been recognized as one of the top non-profits for our cost effectiveness in strengthening healthcare systems. Our work directly impacts those children who so successfully appeal to donors. Yet, this is our challenge. If we focus on the child who we are able to save through immunization, do we lose the opportunity to educate donors on the critical importance of systems building and social change? Do we lose the chance to describe the complicated and sophisticated nature of what we do?
Perhaps this is not black or white and just as any good fund development or marketing manager knows, you need different messages for different audiences. Yet, Professor Singer’s book has given us an opportunity to step back and discuss how we tell our story to current and potential donors. And wherever we land at the end of this debate, we know either way the most important message of all is in our ability to save a life. That we all agree on. What are your thoughts? Join us in this debate.