Empathy, a Pandemic, and Donors
I’m not sure if it’s the waning of the pandemic or if people are finally catching on that change is necessary, but I’m feeling lots of new energy in the research space — especially where it involves people and emotions. Research on things like empathy, connection, engagement, decision-making, and communication seems to be the focus of a number of studies that have taken place since Covid became part of our lives.
Is this a natural offset to two years of confusion and fear? The research shows that, since Spring of 2020, at least 50% of our population have experienced increases in stress and anxiety, 54% are emotionally exhausted, 53% describe themselves as “sad”, and 50% are irritable (Forbes and Qualtrics). It sure seems like Covid is a clear contributor, if not the contributor, to those numbers. Another study from July 2020 found that 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. had reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, compared with a study in June 2019 that showed the same symptoms occurring in 1 in 10 U.S. adults.
Although 2021 numbers aren’t yet available, it’s clear that, if you hadn’t realized this earlier, people are stressed, anxious, and/or depressed in a way that hasn’t been seen in a very long time.
This is where the new focus on empathy comes in. Knowing that people are having a hard time mentally, anyone in the business of engaging individual human beings has to adjust their methods of interacting with others. In fact, it’s critical, whatever sector you find yourself in (business, education, nonprofits, etc.) to realize that your success rate will be largely determined by the way you empathize with the person you’re interacting with.
As my readers know, I feel very strongly about the reluctance on the part of nonprofits to use basic business rules and norms. Coming from for-profit businesses, I was shocked to find that standards relating to operations, HR, office culture, etc. were kryptonite to many NPOs. As a donor, I felt uneasy giving money to an organization that thought that “business” was a dirty word.
I know, as many of you do, that empathy, connection, and engagement can make the difference between a transaction between a nonprofit and a donor — and a relationship. I wondered what it would look like to take some of this fascinating and important research about today’s for-profit workers and apply it to nonprofits.
Check it out — it’s pretty clear in looking at these studies that changing the word “leaders” to “nonprofit” and “employees/people” to “donors” gives us a very clear message about working with donors in today’s post-pandemic climate. (The information below is from a recent Catalyst study detailed in Forbes.)
Engagement. “76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged compared with only 32% who experienced less empathy.”
Translated into nonprofit-world terms, we can read this as donors experiencing empathy from fundraisers are 34% more likely to be engaged as donors facing a fundraiser (or fundraising message) that lacks empathy.
If you’re a fundraiser or nonprofit leader, it looks like you’ll have more than double the engagement rate (and, it follows, success raising money) if you show empathy to your prospects. Let’s make that authentic empathy while we’re on the subject…
Retention. “57% of white women and 62% of women of color said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies when they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued by their companies. However, when they didn’t feel that level of value or respect for their life circumstances, only 14% and 30% of white women and women of color respectively said they were unlikely to consider leaving.”
Let’s read that as female donors are about twice as likely to continue engaging with fundraisers if they feel that their personal life experiences are respected. With the retention of donors being top of the list for most nonprofit organizations, these statistics are dramatic. Respecting someone’s “life circumstances” when you’re engaging with them makes a huge difference in their “stickiness” —likelihood to continue giving to you. (In case you’re thinking that this sounds like the definition of a relationship, you’re correct.)
“Decision Making: According to a study published in Evolutionary Biology, when empathy was introduced into decision making, it increased cooperation and even caused people to be more empathetic. Empathy fostered more empathy.”
How great is that? If I as a donor feel that the person asking me for a gift is empathetic — caring about me as a person and not a piggy bank, we might both become more empathetic. Empathy fosters more empathy. How great is it to connect with a donor via an empathetic, authentic, and likely long-term relationship? Isn’t giving about having empathy for a situation or cause? I love this quote from the Greenstein Family Foundation: Giving is in a tug-of-war between strategy and empathy, but the best kind of philanthropy is one that incorporates both.
Looking at this from a nonprofit and donor perspective, I can read this as strong support for fundraisers to show that they and they authentically care about donors as people. Of course, that also means that the fundraiser needs to actually listen to the donor and adjust to their (in this case, emotional) needs.
For the fundraiser, this can make their job much more meaningful and fulfilling. For both the donor and the fundraiser, getting past the arcane “scripted” interactions and into the realm of an actual relationship is likely to foster compassion, action, and long-term giving.
For those of you who read last week’s tip of the week, does that Maya Angelou quote sound familiar?
I’m Saving Giving by providing a clear path to success, supported by data, statistics, and interviews. You can find more great newsletters like this one here on Philanthropy 451, in my bestselling book, Philanthropy Revolution, or on socials at Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to learn more.