01/14/2014 05:23 EST | Updated 03/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Charity Works Better Without Pity

Wide shot: A boy and a woman, balancing a water jug on her head, shuffle down a long, dusty road. Sad piano music plays. The words "Somewhere in Africa" appear at the bottom of the screen. The camera zooms on their bare feet, plodding in slow motion, then their faces, downcast. Suddenly, the woman trips, loses her jug, and falls face down in the dirt. The boy doubles over in gales of laughter and a voice off-screen shouts, "Cut!"

A khaki-clad director marches into view and barks in a French accent, "What are you doing?! I thought you could carry a bucket on your head."

The giggling boy replies in perfect English,"You can't tell me that wasn't funny!"

This is a scene from a video that made the rounds on social media over the holidays, called Let's save Africa! - Gone wrong. This biting satire of charity fundraising ads pretends to look behind the scenes of the filming of one of these ads, featuring "Michael," a fictional child actor who specializes in playing the impoverished child. The Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund produced the video as a send-up of charities that use pity and guilt trips to get into your wallet.

Over the holidays we saw more than a few fundraising ads take this approach. But is there a better way to appeal for donations than preying on pity?

We've all seen the ads. A white person -- often a celebrity -- strolls through a dilapidated village of mud huts, stooping to pick up one of the strategically-placed children who sit listlessly, their bellies bloated with hunger. The camera zooms in and the child stares out at you from the screen while the celebrity tells you the child's name and details his horrible life facing starvation with parents dead from disease. She implores you to give generously to save the child's life.

The problem with these ads is they reinforce negative stereotypes about people in Africa and other developing countries -- that they are helpless victims who need to be saved. It's patronizing and dis-empowering.

The goal of the ads is to tug heartstrings and create an emotional connection between you, the potential donor, and the people in need. Numerous studies have shown that donors respond better to appeals that include an "identifiable victim"-- putting a name and face to the cause -- than they do to a statistic.

Say you have some money to donate, and you're faced with two different appeals. The first charity asks you to help Rokia, a seven-year-old girl in Mali. Your donation will provide Rokia, who is starving, with food, education and health care. The second appeal asks for your support to aid three million children facing food shortages in Zambia after a drought devastated maize production. Which would you choose to support?

That's the question researchers at the Wharton School of Business (University of Pennsylvania) and Carnegie Mellon University posed in a 2008 study. A majority of those surveyed chose Rokia, the "identifiable victim," rather than the "statistical victims" in Zambia. In an interview with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, researcher Deborah Small said: "The more vivid the story -- through narrative or through imagery--the more emotionally arousing. And emotions are what triggers the impetus to help."

Is emotion really the only marketable motivator for giving? In his book The End of Fundraising: How to Raise More by Selling your Impact (Jossey-Bass, 2011) Jason Saul argues that governments, businesses and consumers are evolving in how they view social good -- they increasingly see social change as delivering valuable goods and services. Therefore, he says, charities must stop relying on pity to elicit donations, and instead sell the quality of their product -- their impact, the lasting effect your donation will have on its recipients.

"There is greater emphasis than ever on measuring social outcomes," says Saul, in the intro to The End of Fundraising. "We cannot value what we cannot measure."

Pilotlight, an organization that connects business leaders with charities and social enterprises in the U.K., recently surveyed 160 business leaders and major philanthropists in England and Scotland. Sixty per cent of those surveyed said they based their decision to donate on information about the charity's impact.

So when you're making your charity giving decisions, put as much effort into researching the organization as you would into buying a TV set or other item online. How good is their product in terms of impact? Is the organization tackling the root causes of the problem; is it empowering the people it works with to take control of their own lives; and is it producing lasting, sustainable results? Finally, is the organization selling you on the power of that impact, or is it just rifling through your emotions for loose change?

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit

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