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The Evidence-Based Secret to Achieving 'Big Goal' Philanthropy

January 08, 2014

(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.)

BHAG"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:

Telling powerful personal stories. Let stories of individuals add up to an overarching story about the bigger goal. Malaria No More currently has a beautiful Web site, the Power of One, that's a great example of this approach: "Get a closer look at our first country of impact, Zambia, and the sassy, smart, irrepressible kids we're striving to keep happy and healthy. Turn the volume up -- you're helping us get closer to a world where no child has to die from a mosquito bite!" The organization has a big goal: dispensing three million malaria treatments in Zambia and ending malaria as a cause of child mortality. But the words, photos, and videos on its site never let you lose sight of the fact that you are helping one child at a time.

Giving people do-able actions that support big, transformative impact. When asking members of the public to take action, we typically try to focus on specific, non-divisible behavior. It's a way of giving people something they can do that is both manageable and effective in advancing progress toward achieving the larger goal. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is leading the fight against invasive species -- non-native insects that, when inadvertently introduced into a new region, can wipe out forests and crops. Our team at Crosby Marketing developed a public education campaign for USDA that encourages people to "leave hungry pests behind" and urges them to take a few simple actions like buying firewood where you burn it that can help protect local environments.

Tapping impactful and relevant motivators. It's critically important to invest in marketing research to learn what motivates your target audiences. At Crosby, we test our messaging by constructing a series of statements and supportive points, each grounded in a different psychological motivator -- social norming, loss aversion, deviance avoidance, and so on -- to learn how we can communicate about an issue in a way that resonates with and motivates people. We are working with the Wallace Foundation, for example, on a demonstration project/study to determine the impact that summer learning programs have on educational outcomes in urban communities. In recruiting parents and children for the project, however, we found that messaging grounded in social norms failed to motivate the parents to whom we spoke. The majority of those parents were low-income members of minority populations, and any time we couched messaging in the context of their community, they felt we were stigmatizing them. In contrast, they responded positively to messaging which reinforced the sense that they have the power to affect their own children’s future. Using the latter approach, we were able to help each participating school district exceed its recruitment goal.

Promoting meaningful consumer engagement. Don't just communicate with your audience, engage your audience. "Content marketing" refers to the strategic utilization of sharable content in a variety of formats -- from social media posts to infographics to video assets -- to create relationships with target audiences. Few do it as well as charity: water. Explore the organization's site and you'll find videos, an interactive map of completed projects, reports detailing successes (and, yes, some failures), and numerous opportunities to meet the people who work there. Charity: water understands that building relationships is what creates longtime supporters and donors -- lots of them.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors can lead the way as we pursue transformative change and work to end hunger, bring clean water to every community that needs it, and erase achievement gaps. By applying the lessons of social psychology and behavioral economics to social change work, we can mobilize individual activists and supporters to help us go big. And in the process, achieve big things.

-- Jeff Rosenberg

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