Connection, not Deception

Continuing on the Kiva thread, I wanted to pick up on my previous post where I argue that what Kiva is doing is nothing new, and put a sharper point on my argument.

(But first I have to applaud Kiva for already making prominent changes to its website in explaining how they operate: old vs. new; and old vs. new.)

Saundra Schimmelpfennig of Good Intentions Are Not Enough describes my take on this as “Sasha Ditcher argues in his blog that to get people to donate aid agencies have to use half-truths.”

This isn’t what I think at all.  Lots of nonprofits get lots of people to donate in lots of ways, and it’s simply empirically incorrect to say that they “have to use half-truths.”  Most don’t; some do.  I firmly believe that transparency and accountability will win; that, especially now, any organization that makes claims that it cannot support will lose (faith, trust, brand, credibility, donors) in the end.

What I’m saying is that “give to help this person” pitch is both true enough and compelling enough that it’s not going anywhere, no matter what we wish for.

Why is it so compelling?

A parable: imagine you’re walking in the woods on a crisp fall day, the leaves have just begun to turn, and you can see your breath as you crunch down the still trail.  You come upon a clearing and see mist rising above a flat, wide lake, and across the lake and close to the opposite shore you see a single rowboat.  As you approach, you notice the boat is rocking and you catch a glimpse of the boater’s face, agitated.  She whips her head around to see you, and starts waving frantically.  “O my gosh!!!” she gasps.  “Thank goodness!!  Please help me!!  My boat has a leak and I don’t know how to swim!  I’m going to drown!  Please help me!”

You will swim into the water and help.  Nearly everyone will.

Now change the story.  The lake is in a park, and fifty people are around.  What are the odds you’re going to help?  Low.  And in fact the odds that nobody helps are better than you’d think.

Need proof?  According to newspaper accounts, in 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death by a serial rapist and murderer.  The killing took place over the course of nearly half an hour, and 38 people witnessed the attack and did nothing – they didn’t even call the police.  This wasn’t an isolated incident.  It is easily replicated by social psychologists, enough that it’s been coined the “bystander effect.”

As Saundra points out, there are lots of reasons to bystand when faced with people in need half a world away: maybe someone else will give; maybe the money I give won’t get there; maybe it will be mismanaged.  The reasons not to give are so compelling that it reminds us that each time someone does give it is an act of generosity, of faith, and of trust.

How do you counteract the natural tendency to do nothing?  Kiva gives us at least one very compelling answer. Create an experience for a potential donor that’s as similar to walking by a lake alone with one person in danger.  How does Kiva do it?  They present this potential donor with:

  • A specific borrower
  • With a real story with strong emotional content
  • Needing a specific amount of money
  • With a deadline
  • And the ability to see what happened to that person
  • And they present this all to a web-savvy, 21st century consumer who has lots of experience clicking on things online and having real things happen (e.g. when they use Amazon)

The ask is concrete, tangible, direct, has emotional content, a feedback loop, and it’s presented to someone who is used to using online tools.  It’s brilliant, and it’s well-executed.

And let’s remember: these are real people who are getting real loans from real microfinance organizations and really paying them back.  And Heifer International really is buying livestock that goes to real people in the developing world.

It does seem like Kiva is already making some adjustments, and my guess is that they will lead the pack given their commitment to transparency.  But just last month I received an email from another international NGO titled “Help millions of women like me” with a personal letter from one woman whose story was alternately heart-wrenching and triumphant.  It’s a true story, it’s compelling, and it’s not going anywhere.

To summarize:

  • Do I think that giving to individual people in need is ever going to get to the root of the problems of poverty in the world?  No.
  • Do I think that there’s some blurring of the lines of what exactly is happening versus the appearance of what is happening when a nonprofit says “help someone like me”? Probably.
  • Do I think that fundraising in this way ultimately serves to undermine the hugely important role the nonprofit itself plays, inevitably leading to the spurious conclusion that all “overhead” should be minimized so nearly all of the dollar given goes to the person in need?  Yes.
  • Do I think that we desperately need both nonprofits and donors to lead with a different story that has strong emotional content and connection AND that helps us build real, large-scale solutions that work to solve these problems in a fundamental way?  Absolutely.
  • And do I think that the “help this one person” ask is going away, ever?  No chance.

The good news is, conversations like the one that just flared up around Kiva will keep the system in balance, and there are more tools than ever to create this kind of accountability.

But the real challenge is for all nonprofits to look at the Kiva playbook and really understand why their ask is so effective.  We need better stories to donors that explain all the nuance, challenge, importance and complexity of this work, but these stories will only serve their purpose if they have all the concrete, tangible, direct, and emotional content that Kiva creates for hundreds of thousands of people every day.

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3 thoughts on “Connection, not Deception

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