Why Emotional Connections Drive Donating: Lessons From The Academic Literature

Donating is driven by emotional connections. We know this based on the academic literature, and our proprietary research. We developed Connection Compass because many charities are struggling to break through the noise. Our approach was developed based on the knowledge that emotional connections between a donor and a real (or symbolic) recipient are the most powerful driver of donating.

Connection Compass is Maru/Matchbox’s tool that allows charities to understand how they connect with donors. It helps charities identify what makes their donors tick, optimize their messaging, and connect with donors in ways that resonate. This helps charities grow their donor base and obtain a greater return on investment from their campaigns.

The literature is full of illuminating and sometimes counter-intuitive findings about why people donate. Consider these:

  • Logic doesn’t work. Rational appeals—based on numbers and measures of overall impact—can discourage donating;
  • If the problem is presented as a big one, people feel overwhelmed and don’t want to get involved;
  • If you make the problem feel solvable for a single person, people will give.

This article explores these findings and more, explaining why emotional connectedness is so critical to donating, and why Connection Compass is laser-focused on how people relate to charities.

It begins in the brain 

To understand why emotional connectedness matters, we need to start with how we think. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on behavioral economics. Behavioral economics is concerned primarily with how we process information and make decisions. He suggests the brain’s operations can be categorized into two systems:

“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control;”

“System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.”[i]

Another way to think of it is that System 1 is fast, intuitive and emotional, while System 2 is slower, deliberative and logical.

Kahneman suggests that when we think about who we are and the choices we make, we like to believe we are primarily using System 2, “the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices and decides what to think about and what to do.”[ii]

But hundreds of experiments have confirmed that what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking is the primary driver of our choices. We tend to make snap judgements and spur of the moment choices, and then rationalize them to ourselves. We believe we are using System 2 thinking because System 1 thinking “effortlessly originates impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2.”[iii]

So, while we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, we are largely driven by emotional reactions we may not even be aware of. And that has important implications for donating.

People want to help an individual

People tend to want to help people they can identify and sympathize with. Academics call this the “identifiable victim effect,” and it has been researched extensively.[iv] The basic finding is that people tend to donate more when a single person is identified as needing help because they can relate to that person.

There are two important elements that contribute to the identifiable victim effect. One is information that makes a person relatable. The other is that it is a single person, rather than a group because it is easier to imagine yourself in the shoes of an individual than it is a group.[v]

Even though helping a group would make more rational sense than helping an individual, it’s not the rational mind that’s making the call. It’s the emotional side of thinking—System 1—that trumps rational thinking—System 2—when making decisions to donate.

The sad death of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi is an example of how this works. Psychologist Paul Slovic and colleagues studied how the iconic photo of the little boy’s body lying face-down on a Turkish beach impacted donating. That image was viewed by more than 20 million people on social media alone.

‘‘If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’’ – Mother Teresa

The death toll in the Syrian crisis started even before Alan was born, and a conservative estimate put the toll at a total of 250,000 people killed by the time of his death. In Sweden, they had been taking in about 40,000 Syrian refugees a month, just before the photo appeared. The Swedish Red Cross started a campaign to support the refugees roughly a month before the photo of Alan was published, and donations were modest. The photo of Alan changed everything.

The researchers found “The mean number of daily donations during the week after publication of the photo was more than 100-fold greater compared with the week before.” They concluded “these data illustrate the iconic victim effect. The photograph of a single identified individual captured the attention of people and moved them to take interest and provide aid in ways that were not motivated by statistics of hundreds of thousands of deaths.”[vi]

“The identifiable victim effect is largely attributable to the stronger sympathetic emotions evoked by an identifiable victim compared with an unidentifiable victim. Because emotions are closely intertwined with immediate behavioral inclinations, the emotionally evocative single, identified victim leads people to donate more than the abstract, less emotionally evocative statistical victims.”[vii]

People want to know how they are helping

The identifiable victim effect makes a need tangible—you can identify with the person being helped. Specific information on how a donation will help also increases giving.

In a paper entitled The Donor is in the Details, researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Washington Universities write: “Details not only have the capacity to increase how much we care about another person’s plight, but they also have the ability to influence how much we believe we can have impact in a given problem. This increase in perceived impact leads to increased generosity.”[viii]

Being able to picture who you are helping and how gives people emotional satisfaction. That’s why we find that health-related charities, hospitals and local food banks often have stronger connections with donors—because people can picture their dollars at work.

Don’t make me think

The fact that giving is so emotional bothers a lot of researchers. They have searched for ways to “correct” that by encouraging people to think deliberatively and rationally so that greater good can be done.[ix] In doing so they have tested various strategies for conveying information about the need for help.

One such study tried that “various manipulations of deliberative thought, including explicit debiasing interventions, providing statistics, and priming an analytic mindset.”[x] They found that these interventions—all appealing to System 2 thinking—had a perverse effect. Instead of increasing interest in helping larger numbers of people, it just diminished their interest in helping identifiable victims “resulting in an overall reduction in caring and giving.”[xi]

Again, we see rational thinking is not a driver of donating—emotion is.

Big numbers are numbing

By exposing people to information on large-scale suffering, there is research showing that it can make them less sensitive, producing what Slovic calls “psychophysical numbing.” This is the flip side of the identifiable victim effect. As the number of people talked about increases, the problem becomes less personal and emotional and more abstracted.

“Many people do not understand large numbers,” writes Slovic.[xii] “Indeed, large numbers are found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they convey affect (feeling). As a result, there is a paradox that rational models of decision making fail to represent. On the one hand, we respond strongly to aid a single individual in need. On the other hand, we often fail to prevent mass tragedies such as genocide…I think this occurs, in part because as the numbers get larger and larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action.”

This effect can happen even with relatively small numbers. Kogut and Ritov found that people tend to feel more distress and compassion when considering a single victim than when considering a group of 8 victims.[xiii] In their experiment, the cost to save eight children was the same as the cost to save one child. They found that people were more willing to donate to save one child than they were to save eight, which makes no logical sense. But giving is not about logic, it’s about emotional connections.

What does this mean for you?  

These findings have some important implications for how you communicate with donors, and for how you conduct research. The child sponsorship approach is clearly aimed at connecting donors with what academics call an ‘identifiable victim,’ but very few charities lend themselves to that method. What’s more, that tactic is losing its potency as it has been so overplayed that people are becoming immune to it. What is needed are some more inventive approaches; fresh angles on emotionally connecting with donors and prospects.

Ask yourself these questions about your marketing:

  • Are you communicating rational or emotional arguments? Or are you blending them?
  • Are you drawing attention to the needs of individuals or groups?
  • Is your focus on statistics, or needs where an individual can feel like they can make a difference?
  • Are you communicating enough details to show tangible impact?

And these questions about your research:

  • Do you measure emotional connections?
  • Do your questions stimulate System 2 or System 1 thinking? Questions like “why” and “how important is…?” go straight to System 2—which we know is not deciding to donate.
  • Are you looking at derived importance, when it comes to understanding what drives the reaction to your programs and campaigns?
  • Do you know where you stand relative to your competitors when it comes to the kind of connection you have?

At Maru/Matchbox we believe in understanding emotional connections. That’s why we developed Connection Compass and our suite of approaches to donor research. Tools like Idea Filter and Message Filter are ideal for getting the kind of effortless feedback that facilitates System 1 thinking. And Connection Compass measures emotional associations to identify what is driving donating. To learn more about how Maru/Matchbox can help make your campaigns and programs a success, contact us. You can also learn more about Connection Compass here.


[i]Thinking Fast and Slow. D. Kahneman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Ibid
[iv] For a useful summary of literature of the identifiable victim effect see The Critical Link Between Tangibility and Generosity, C. Cryder, G. Loewenstein, 2011
[v] The ‘‘Identified Victim’’ Effect: An Identified Group, or Just a Single Individual? T. Kogut, I Ritov, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2005
[vi]Iconic photographs and the ebb and flow of empathic response to humanitarian disasters”, P. Slovic, D. Västfjäll, A Erlandsson and R. Gregory, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, January 2017
[vii] See for example Donate Different: External and Internal Influences on Emotion-Based Donation Decisions, M. Huber, L. Van Boven, A. Peter McGraw in The Science of Giving: Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charity
[viii] The donor is in the details, C. Cryder, G. Loewenstein, R. Scheines, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2013
[ix] See for example Donate Different: External and Internal Influences on Emotion-Based Donation Decisions, M. Huber, L. Van Boven, A. Peter McGraw in The Science of Giving: Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charity by Daniel M. Oppenheimer (Editor),‎ Christopher Y. Olivola (Editor), Psychology Press 2011
[x] Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims, D.A. Small, G. Loewenstein, P. Slovic, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2007.
[xi] Ibid
[xii] The more who die, the less we care, Paul Slovic in The Irrational Economist: Making Decisions in a Dangerous World, E. Michel-Kerjan and P. Slovic (eds.) Public Affairs Press 2010
[xiii] The ‘‘Identified Victim’’ Effect: An Identified Group, or Just a Single Individual?  T Kogut, I Ritov, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2005