The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Why Vivid Storytelling Inspires Giving

I had read of Wharton marketing professor Deborah Small’s groundbreaking research on how statistics can suppress giving. I followed up with her by phone with this interview about how nonprofits can use her research to more effectively fundraise.

Q: There are so many nonprofits trying to figure out how to fundraise better. Your research on appealing to emotion is path-breaking. Can you elaborate on how people can appeal to emotion? I know you use the example of one child, and you say it should be a “vivid” story. Can you elaborate on that?

A: The more vivid the story – through narrative or through imagery – the more emotionally arousing. And emotions are what triggers the impetus to help. The more surprising finding is that showing statistics can actually blunt this emotional response by causing people to think in a more calculative, albeit uncaring, manner.

Q: Are there some people for whom augmenting these emotional appeals with statistics would be useful?

A: We typically look at averages. Certainly, if you have more intellectual and knowledgeable people, they will care more about the statistics – but most people usually respond negatively; so an advertisement is not the place for statistics. Put them somewhere on your website. If people want to find them, they will find them. But don’t put them in standard advertising. There’s so much advertising clutter in the world that you need to focus on catching people’s attention and moving them to act by triggering emotion.

Q: What are other effects on people’s giving you think would be fruitful to explore?

A: Some of my research shows that sympathy is particularly responsive to changes in someone’s condition. A lot of decision-making research demonstrates that human beings are insensitive to absolute values and only respond to changes. For instance, when you put your foot in a cold pool on a hot day, it feels cold because of the contrast with the outside temperature. However, the water does not feel so cold when you have been in the water for a while. In other words, it is the change in temperatures, not the absolute temperature, which feels cold.

I argue that sympathy is also a function of changes, not states. This is why we respond more emotionally upon learning that someone has lost their home than upon learning that someone is homeless. This might help explain why certain conditions trigger greater sympathy than others. A natural disaster or war causes losses in others’ welfare, whereas chronic conditions such as ongoing famine do not. For non-profit fundraising, it is important to frame situations in terms of changes or losses, not states.

Another project of mine looks at how knowing a victim of a particular misfortune increases one’s sympathy for people with that misfortune. Knowing someone with AIDS makes you more likely to give or volunteer to help others with AIDS. This works because people with first-hand experience are prone to sympathize with others who suffer similarly. Viral marketing and word of mouth can leverage such interpersonal relationships and networks connecting victims and their loved ones.

Q: So doesn’t the same sad-looking kid every year get old?

A: Of course. You need to make it fresh and focus on a different kid the next year.

Q: Any other advice for nonprofits as to how they should try to raise money?

A: In addition to leveraging emotion, creating urgency is also an effective strategy. Think about infomercials – “Hurry now! Only 3 left!” Or, “Limited time only.” Nonprofits need to emphasize the urgency of social needs.


Perla Ni, founder and former publisher of Stanford Social Innovation Review, is the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits. She is also a co-founder of


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Carrie Saracini
Content Marketing Manager

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