On “how to save the world”

It seems that my sporadic reading schedule is always at least one edition behind in my attempt to keep pace with the magazines and periodicals to which I subscribe. So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let me share an important, thought-provoking article that appeared in the December 2009 edition of Outside Magazine.

The article, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, is titled How to Save the World & Influence People. How can you pass over a title like that?

Kristof examines the typical ways that aid organizations and philanthropic nonprofits share their messages, recent psychology findings regarding how those messages are perceived, and some key elements found among those messages that are effective at eliciting public reaction. In a realm where the ability for an organization’s message to resonate with the public can, in some cases,┬áliterally mean the difference between life and death for those who would be served by the organization’s work, any such insights should be considered carefully.

Kristoff tells us that one important finding revealed by recent research is that “We intervene not because of stories of desperate circumstances but when can be cheered up with positive stories of success and transformation. For example:

One experiment found that people are quite willing to pay for a water-treatment facility to save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp with 11,000 people in it, but they are much less willing to pay for the same facility to save 4,500 lives when the refugee camp is said to have 250,000 inhabitants. In effect, what matters is saving a high proportion of people, not just a large number of lives.

According to Paul Slovic, psychology professor and researcher at the University of Oregon, saving a large proportion of group is seen as a success, and is therefore satisfying, while saving a small proportion is viewed as a failure, even if it’s a large number. While I find this quite intriguing, I also find it a bit unsettling.

Regardless of what the finding says about human nature, it certainly seems like something that nonprofits everywhere would be well-served to take note of, and to keep in mind as they craft their outreach and marketing messages. In fact, perhaps the central lessons here apply to all socially and environmentally responsible organizations, nonprofit or otherwise.

The research findings outlined in this article suggest that such groups will have significantly more success in connecting with their target audiences if they use a benefit-focused approach, rather than a need-focused approach. Help your readers to become the hero. For example, rather than sharing stories of the dismal social or environmental conditions that your organization is working to address, or even what you’re specifically doing to address those conditions, share stories of success -stories in which your supporters’ involvement has directly contributed to significant change. In doing so, you’ll not only highlight your organization’s proven ability to enact change, but more importantly, you’ll enable your audience to see a path by which they can be a part of that change. By incorporating such success-oriented messaging across your marketing materials, you’ll improve your success at transforming your audience from sympathetic to engaged —from bystanding to upstanding.

Speaking of marketing…One aspect of this otherwise wonderful article that I found to be unfortunate is the language that Kristof uses at times to describe the marketing industry. The article leads with the question, “What would happen if aid organizations and other philanthropists embraced the dark arts of marketing spin and psychological persuasion used on Madison Avenue?” By referring to the marketing industry in this way, he does little to dispel the belief that the profession of marketing and its goals are inherently at odds with the goals of altruistic organizations. To the contrary, it’s been my experience that too many good people doing good work either fail to realize the power of marketing, or carry a mistaken notion that marketing must be manipulative, and is therefore beneath the purity of their cause. It’s also been my experience that they do so at their own detriment. As Kristoff states, “Like Pepsi, humanitarian causes need savvy marketing. Indeed, they need it far more than a soft drink company.”

Ditto for graphic design, needless to say ; )

Check it out: Read the complete article. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Never underestimate the power of a planted seed: