To Make a Bigger Impact, Start Telling Smaller Stories

Read Time: 3 minutes

“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

I purposefully didn’t attribute the author of this quote since he’s inarguably, well, one of the most murderous dictators in modern history. But the sentiment is spot on–and was even echoed by the infinitely-more-honorable Mother Theresa years later:

“If I look at the mass I will never act.”

Two people–one evil, one saint–both recognized something critical about human psychology and behavior that defies all logic, but is so important to how nonprofits and cause-driven organizations communicate:

Individual struggles, personal triumphs, and 1:1 human connections are more powerful motivators for action and compassion than grand, sweeping statements, numbers, or generalized impact.

It’s what researcher Paul Slovic termed the “collapse of compassion,” or “psychic numbing.” The more volume of suffering or injustice that’s presented, the more psychologically difficult it becomes for us to understand or cope with the situation–and so we simply opt out.

A colleague of mine here at Media Cause came across a NPR article that talked about the phenomenon in the context of this week’s dramatic rescue of the trapped Thai soccer team. Billions of people around the world sent prayers and outpourings of support for the 12 teens and their coach. We saw their faces, heard their messages to their families, maybe even imagined how we’d feel if those were our own kids trapped in there. We cared about what happened, and we somehow got involved–even if, like in my house, it was just by talking about it as a family around the dinner table.

But while all this was happening, most people probably didn’t give a second thought to the 18 million child refugees around the world who aren’t getting rescued. We don’t know their names. Their stories haven’t been etched into our minds by 24/7 news coverage. And irrationally, but realistically, the fact that there are 18 million children instead of 12 makes the crisis almost impossible to comprehend. So we don’t. And we move on.

It’s been ingrained in the mindsets of nonprofits and cause-driven organizations to speak in these sweeping, large-scale terms when trying to attract new supporters:

Join us to inspire thousands of students…
Your support helps save hundreds of animals…
We’ve cleaned millions of gallons of water…

There’s absolutely nothing wrong (and actually, everything right) about pursuing these ambitious, big-picture goals. But one of Slovic’s experiments in particular shows us that the construct in which we present them can make all the difference in compelling people to act:

“Slovic asked volunteers whether they would help raise $300,000 to save eight children who were dying of cancer. Those in another group were told only about one child with cancer and asked how much they were willing to donate to save the life of that child. Slovic found that people were willing to give more money to save one life than to save eight.”

What can we learn from this strange complexity of the human mind? Nonprofits have a better chance of inspiring engagement, donations, and advocacy by telling stories about individuals–not just issues as a whole.

It’s something to keep in mind when you’re working on your next social campaign, an email series, your annual report, or even rethinking your organization’s mission statement. By bringing smaller-scale narratives to the forefront of our communications, we can ultimately help make a larger-scale impact in the communities we serve.

To read more about Slovic’s research:


How does your organization use storytelling to communicate impact? We’d love to hear from you!

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