(Jeff Rosenberg is the advocacy and social marketing practice leader at Crosby Marketing Communications, an advertising agency with offices in Annapolis and Washington, D.C., whose accounts include the federal organ donor awareness campaign, digital marketing and creative development for the EPA's ENERGY STAR program, and anti-poverty campaigns for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.)
"Going big" is the talk of philanthropy. Pursuing bold, audacious goals and achieving truly transformative change -- like ending childhood hunger or eradicating poverty -- is becoming a key strategy for many philanthropies and nonprofits working to address social ills. But going big actually can discourage individual activists and supporters from taking action. Fortunately, research by social marketers and behavioral economists teaches us how we can ensure that a going-big approach really motivates individuals to do something.
In a widely read article in the Fall 2013 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Bill Shore and Darrell Hammond, founders and CEOs of, respectively, Share Our Strength and KaBOOM!, write: "The foundation on which many nonprofits is built is flawed and simplistic, focused on a symptom rather than the underlying set of problems....As a result, change is incremental, not big or bold enough to make a lasting and transformative impact." In response, Share Our Strength has changed its focus from making grants to leading a national campaign to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. And KaBOOM! has expanded its focus from building playgrounds in underserved areas to being a leading advocate for the value of play, with the larger goal of ensuring that all children, especially those living in poverty, get the play, and playspaces, they need to grow up to be healthy and successful adults.
Here's the challenge: how do you convince individuals to take action, to donate money or volunteer, for example, in support of big goals when incremental efforts are easier to sell? Experiments in the fields of social psychology and behavioral economics suggest we are less likely to feel compassion or donate money when we are distracted by thinking about the size or scope of a problem. Simply put, big numbers or a big problem can cause us to become paralyzed by analysis -- or what scientists call psychophysical numbing. One study even found that potential donors who are shown a photo of a single person in need of assistance are more likely to give than those who are shown a photo of two people in need. The trick in social marketing (i.e., applying marketing principles in service to the greater good) is to tap into this feeling of being connected with a "one" while challenging your potential supporters to think more broadly about social change. How do we motivate people to pursue big goals and meaningful change when the research makes it clear that "big" can be a disincentive?
There are several ways, actually: