It’s well-documented that animals exhibit altruism and have the power to heal. But you don’t need empirically based studies to tell you that. Informal evidence is as close as your nearest pediatric hospital or Ronald McDonald House®: Witness the special bond between therapy dogs and sick children.
I was reminded of the human-animal emotional connection last year. I had what I’m pretty sure is one of the worst cases of norovirus ever recorded on land, sea, or cruise ship. My dog, Pepper, is normally playful and spunky. During those very ill 36 hours, however, she stayed motionless by my side, with her eyes unwaveringly trained on me.
The pet parent in me wants to believe she was displaying a serious case of empathy. The skeptic in me says she was concerned her meal ticket was fading from view. Now, scientists are helping to prove the former.
And fundraisers can learn a lot from them — the scientists and the dogs.
In a new study published in the journal Learning & Behavior, study authors found that dogs not only noticed when their owner was upset, they pushed through a door to get to them more quickly if they heard crying noises versus their owner humming a tune (“Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”). They posit that hearing their owners in distress motivated an empathetic response from the dogs — and faster action, too.
To be fair, there were limitations to the study. Only 34 dogs and their owners participated — a small sample. And because the humans were their owners, it’d be easy to imagine that the dogs were motivated because of an existing bond or anticipated reward. The authors also found that the dogs who were less anxious about perceiving their owner in distress were able to reach them more quickly. Or maybe the dogs simply weren’t fond of the rendition they heard of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.” It’s not an easy tune to hum.
Regardless, the study authors say their findings represent a step in understanding the mechanisms of empathetic response. And I say fundraisers have a lot to learn from our canine friends.
Empathy is the emotional engine that drives donors to give. It’s different from sympathy, which is compassion for a person or situation. Feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is internalizing emotion — the ability to share someone else’s feelings.
Empathy matters, because it directly impacts motivation for giving. If motivating donors was as easy as appealing to reason through facts and figures, nonprofits would be sitting on a pile of money and convening summits titled, “We Have So Much Money — How Are We Going to Spend it All?” Fundraisers must appeal to the emotional side of the donor’s brain before they ever have a shot at influencing the rational side.
Back to the dogs in the study.
The way I see it, the pooches had a three-step response. Step One — they had to recognize or register that there was a problem (the distress signal). Step Two is showing empathy because they cared enough to take action. Step Three is the action itself — rushing through a door to get to their owner.
It works similarly in direct-response fundraising.
- Step One: Share the distress signal (set up the problem/need).
- Step Two: Get donors to care (powerful, emotional storytelling).
- Step Three: Give donors a way to rush through the door and take action (solve the problem with a gift and make the donation seem like a really good deal, too).
Steps One and Two might not need to be in that order, either. You could grab donors emotionally straight out of the gate with a compelling story before you frame up the need. In fact, there are all kinds of tactics we seasoned fundraisers use to motivate donor giving. It’s a delicate balance between careful creative and powerful storytelling that isn’t perceived as manipulative or exploitative. It’s choreographed with tactics like social proof, focusing on one versus many, putting your donor in the story, and telling stories that resonate.
And there’s more good news for fundraisers who employ empathy. Another study found that empathy might not be a fixed personality trait, but rather a skill that can be improved. Is it possible that we, as fundraisers, can habituate donors to become more empathetic to a specific cause through a mix of sound strategy and well-executed tactics?
Consider this: Those feel-good endorphins from being charitable prime the pumps for donors to give. Giving makes people feel good — heroic even — which is positive reinforcement enough for their behavior. Now add strategies that thank, acknowledge, steward, and cultivate — and then affirm some more — and engagement is further reinforced.
To put it simply: Donors want to help. Our job as fundraisers is to give them a way to do that. Appealing to empathy is one of our trusty tools.
The author's dog, after digging a hole.
Pepper, my dog, proves how much empathy and emotion matter. She gets annoyed at me if she sits on command but doesn’t get rewarded quickly enough. If I’m gone all day, she might greet me excitedly and then give me a serious case of side eye, remembering the solitary confinement she had to endure for the prior eight hours.
And if I dangle a treat but first ask her to fetch the remote, retrieve the paper, and do my taxes — in that order — I’m pretty sure she’d run outside and dig a giant hole in the yard out of spite.
No matter. In the end — for Pepper and for donors — those emotional connections rule the day.
Simple. They both motivate and reward.
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