Why Jerks Don’t Give
I came home. I was frustrated and discouraged. I had been to an outing with well-to-do people who seemed removed from the reality that my nonprofit clients face—disease, poverty, social injustice. These people sipped their morning mimosas, oblivious to the pain and suffering statistically likely to be only miles away, lamenting immigrants, welfare queens and other ne’er do wells.
"How do people so insulate themselves from need?" I asked my husband. "How does it not touch them?"
Otis helped me understand by telling a story. (He’s a human behavior expert so he has good stories.)
I recently attended a conference in San Antonio. My hotel was right on the River Walk, the narrow channel that runs through the downtown district. I was walking back to the hotel one night dressed in a silk suit after dinner out with colleagues. Suddenly I came upon a young child who had somehow fallen into the canal and was flailing in the water; he was drowning. I could have easily jumped into the canal and rescued the child, but to do so would mean that I would ruin my suit and expensive shoes. What should I have done—did I have an obligation to rescue this child?
I said, “You don’t have a silk suit.”
“Focus honey,” he said. He continued:
A similar scenario was described by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer in his essay "The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle." Singer has posed this question to many of his students. When asked if they have an obligation to save the child, unanimously, they said they do, because the importance of saving the child outweighs the cost that doing so requires. They also rejected the idea that the presence of others (who are equally able to respond but for whatever reason do nothing) absolves them of the responsibility to act.
And then Singer asked his students, what if he can show them there is a similar child halfway around the world, and the cost of the clothing they are willing to ruin is sufficient to save that child’s life? Why aren’t they spending that same amount of money to save that child?
Real-life examples are easy to come by. According to UNICEF, providing basic vaccines is a way that we can save the life of strangers at relatively little cost to ourselves. Around the world, the poorest children who need immunizations the most are the ones who are least likely to get them. Last year 19.5 million children failed to receive basic vaccines they need to stave off life-threatening diseases.
When you remove people from the immediacy of the drowning child, they acknowledge that the situation is equivalent, but they begin to rationalize. "Yes, that may be true, but there are untold numbers of children in that situation, and if I did that, sooner or later I would be impoverished myself.” And this is where psychology comes in; people say that if they helped one, then they would have to help 10, 20, 100—and they couldn’t possibly do that.
How do we combat that altruism-defeating multiplication? We give a nudge. We ask for help with just one. Social science tells us that compassion is contagious. Seeing yourself or someone else perform an act of kindness elicits what psychologists call “moral elevation,” an emotional response that makes people want to behave more altruistically toward others.
It is always that first step toward action that seems to be most difficult for people to take. And sometimes, that tiny, first step is hard for nonprofits to ask for when faced with overwhelming numbers associated with need. But ask for a little bit we must—money, time, talent—a little is what opens the door to a lot.
We each have the awesome power to save a stranger’s life in the amount of time it takes to Google a website and enter the digits from our debit card. The challenge for UNICEF and all the various nonprofits that serve developing nations is to convince people to help just one. That is the nudge that can start a contagion of compassion.
Otis spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has degrees in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and The University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.