What unpopular causes can teach us about our own biases and beliefs.

By Craig Kielburger

 

Not every cause is created equal. Some issues don’t get the attention they deserve because—in marketing terms—they aren’t “sexy.”

Save the panda? Sign me up! Save the naked mole rat? Put that picture away, please, you’re scaring the children.

Cute causes draw donor dollars, as do charities that tackle cancer, animal welfare and the arts. Meanwhile, appeals for mental health, addiction, domestic violence, asylum seekers and ex-offenders face challenges.

How we do (or don’t) give could say as much about our biases and beliefs as how we vote and which companies we buy from. You can’t support every cause. Still, when you send money, you do judge who is worth helping. It’s worth examining our common giving habits.

A study from the Centre for Philanthropy at University of Kent found that beneficiary need is far from our first philanthropic priority. Rather, we’re drawn to the “ask effect”— charities with the most prevalent and powerful marketing appeals. Donors rarely research a charity’s impact. One study found that advertising a charity’s proven effectiveness does not increase donations. Instead, purse strings are tied to heart strings. Generosity peaks with the story of a single beneficiary who resonates with givers.

Personal appeals play as much on biases as emotions, and might explain why donors give less to beneficiaries who make them uncomfortable: victims of abuse, asylum seekers, ex-convicts, addicts and people living with mental illness. Social stigmas make vulnerable populations less likely to receive donor dollars. Don’t these the groups need it most?

You can give smarter by focusing on impact. Organizations such as the John Howard Society, which fights for the humane treatment of prisoners, may not have a photogenic cause. But it provides essential services that give Canadians a second chance, reduces recidivism rates and relieves strain on the prison system and taxpayers. National Bail Out, a U.S.-based organization, helps reunite incarcerated mothers with their children on Mothers’ Day.

Research has also proven people give more when asked by a known and respected source. Celebrity spokespeople appeal to this same psychology, but even small-scale studies show that university alumni donate significantly more to their alma mater when a former roommate makes the fundraising call instead of a stranger. Speak up for causes that people overlook, like ProPublica, which reports on abuses of public trust by governments and businesses, or Neglected Tropical Diseases, which affect one billion people in 149 countries.

Speaking up is especially important if the topic is uncomfortable. For instance, the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario receives many anonymous donations because people are afraid to be associated with the cause. The stigma around schizophrenia is so acute that donors don’t even want their names mentioned, says Mary Alberti, chief executive officer of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario.

Unpopular causes need more love, which means a more strategic approach. Support the underdogs by confronting your own biases when the struggles of certain other groups don’t instinctively elicit empathy. Philanthropic impulses come from a good place, but we can still do more to examine our motives.