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.
Katrina VanHuss has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Otis joined in the fun in 2013 as Turnkey’s resident human behavior expert. One thing led to another, and now as a married couple, they almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism and human decision-making, much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Through their work at Turnkey, the pair works with the likes of the American Lung Association, Best Buddies, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, using human behavioral tendencies and recognition to create attachment and high fundraising in volunteers.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P and Peer to Peer Forum, and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, Dollar Dash. They live in Richmond, Va.