Telling stories that help save the world

Refugee CampThe philanthropic community might consider changing its approach to fundraising by making people feel good, rather than guilty if they don’t help, according to author and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in his December article in Outside magazine: “Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World.” Frustrated by the lack of major public reaction to events in Darfur vs. the outpouring of attention to a homeless red-tailed hawk in New York City, Kristof looked to social psychology to learn how to get a better response to humanitarian issues.

Among the things he learned:

  1. People respond more to positive stories of success and transformation than to sad stories that remind them of the world’s many problems. They’re also more motivated to give to projects that help a greater proportion of people, rather than a greater number of people (saving a smaller proportion seems like a failure, even if it is a greater amount overall).
  2. People are more likely to help an individual, rather than a group. A study by Paul Slovic, psychology professor at the University of Oregon, showed that empathy fades when asked to help more than one person.

Rather than rolling our eyes at our fellow humans (and ourselves), we can learn from how people respond to humanitarian needs and adjust how we tell stories. If we care about calling attention to something, how can we get the best response from our audience? This isn’t merely an exercise for writers, but for anyone who comes back from a trip motivated to help a community.

Kristof points to as an aid organization that has been extremely successful with this type of messaging, by allowing people to help individuals or small groups with microloans. Can you think of others?

Posted by | Comments (4)  | December 25, 2009
Category: Travel News

4 Responses to “Telling stories that help save the world”

  1. Aaron Schubert Says:

    It is amazing how media can influence people, and the psychology involved in it all. Thanks for the interesting read.


  2. Lindsey Says:

    “Adjust how we tell stories.”
    Brilliant line! Thanks so much for your post. This has been on my mind a lot lately as I come across refugees from a few not so favored countries. Especially when their kindness is monumental in a completely un-bias way and stereotypes up close just don’t make sense. An organization came to mind that I think has fizzled out as of recently…but I’m going to check into it again. Will let you know!

  3. Susan Fox Says:

    Priceless post for me since I’m involved with a women’s felt crafts coop at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in Mongolia and have set up my own non-profit association, Art Partnerships for Mongolian Conservation, to see how I can use art to support conservation. I will remember now to be positive in my public communications, which won’t be too hard considering how incredible the Mongol women are that I am so lucky to be working with. I love this blog, even though I’m not really a “traveler” like most of you.