Why Folks Don’t Help: A Hypothesis, Plausible Responses, And The Foundations of A Communications Strategy

Some background assumptions:

Most people are good, well-meaning, want to improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off), and can in fact improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off).

The problem:

Most persons could do more than they are presently doing to improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off) and could do so at very little cost to themselves (E.g. minor reductions in consumption spending). In many cases, the short-term costs would even be off-set with long term benefits (e.g. a volunteer position helps a person land a job, the elimination of poverty will contribute to peace and stability and create economic growth).

The hypothesis:

Choice overload plays an important role. There is good empirical evidence (click here for the research paper) which suggests that when people are confronted with too many choices, they choose not to choose. And this makes sense. If a person wants to make a good choice rather than a bad choice, when presented with too many choices, the amount of energy required to make a good choice may seem too costly and the risk of making a bad choice very high. As a result, it may make sense to make no choice at all. I personally have experienced this phenomenon in my own consumer choices and my own efforts to volunteer. 

So, with this phenomenon of reasoning in mind, one can speculate that many people are not doing as much as they could to improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off) because they are “spoiled for choice.” When a well-meaning person is confronted with so many legitimate claims on his or her time, energy, and resources, he or she may choose to do nothing at all. Moreover, from this perspective, certain well-meaning people actually exasperate the problem by calling attention to how many legitimate claims do exist.

Plausible Response To This Phenomenon:

1) Simplify the choice. E.g. “You can help the developing world, you can help folks here at home, or you can do both.”   

2) Make the choice on their behalf or have someone else make the choice:. “I think the best thing to do is …”; “Singer says, this is the best way to give ….” 

3) Emphasize any choice is a good choice. “Every little bit helps / makes a difference!” 

4) Make the choice seem effortless. “It only takes a few minutes to make a real difference.”

I think these basic responses represent an important part of the framework for an effective communications strategy for all aid organizations. When I think of the most successful campaigns I’ve encountered, they all incorporate these responses. There are also CRM best practice associated with each. For example, it shouldn’t take much effort for me to give an organization my time or money. 

Thoughts? Additions? Etc?


As an addendum, this post was inspired by Julie’s posted link here and PPBP blog’s post and discussion, found here

For more of my social and political commentary, click here.


13 thoughts on “Why Folks Don’t Help: A Hypothesis, Plausible Responses, And The Foundations of A Communications Strategy

  1. It sounds like every piece of direct mail I have ever received. I mean, it’s a lovely theory but what is the point of a theory that doesn’t work. Isn’t that just the joke we make about communism?

    You can log on to the webpage of hundreds of non-profits right now and make a donation. It would take you 5 minutes. Who doesn’t have 5 minutes? It’s so very easy. And once or twice a month two or three people actually do that for any given non-profit.

    But, but this is merely diverting around the extreme weirdness in point 2 where someone just makes that choice for them. Like herding cattle or maybe more like herding cats.

    I’m not really saying this properly. Look, I don’t even know how to close.

    1. Thanks Amanda for some good questions.

      The point of stating a theory is to test it, strengthen it, or discard it. By doing, this we learn to adapt our current practices for the better and it helps us achieve our aims. So, insofar as you felt the need to respond, the theory is already a success. Moreover, because your observations are helping me clarify my position and refine it, it has doubly helped. This leads me to believe that this theory has some promise in helping change our practices for the better. I agree, nevertheless, that if a theory does not lead to practices that work, it is better off discarded.

      So there are two levels of analysis for my observations. First, it is meant to concern what people like you and I can do to shift the general discourse about “making a difference”. If people who are leaders in the community are always running around talking about what a huge and multifaceted problem, say, poverty is, we may actually encourage people to do less. I for one had already decided that the solutions are actually very simple and that motivating people is the hard part. Perhaps, the explanation for this is that, for most people, there seems to be too many choices.

      Second, I think these observation are also relevant for aid organizations. Aid organizations and their leaders are, of course, part of the more general level of analysis but they also have more specific goals which also need to be served. I think these observation may help in that regard but I am also happy to entertain the possibility that they will not.

      I think both your observations are important but overlook the key point. Choice overload. How many pieces of direct mail do you receive, from how many different organizations. How many times am I accosted on the street by folks with clipboards ? You mention the existence of hundreds of non-profit web sites. This is exactly a case of choice overload. It would take much more than five minutes to research even three of those choices.

      Perhaps, direct mail is not an effective platform for the message. Ditto for passive websites. Perhaps, more interactive social networking platforms will be better able to communicate the message. My proposed response also suggests that peer recommendation (i.e. letting others make the choice for us) is crucial. But even those peers will need an effective communications strategy for their recommendations to work. If my peer comes up and tells me, “wow, there are so many choices and they all seem unlikely to make a difference, but I think you should give to X anyway”, this is probably not going to work. Also, how much money is an organization spending on direct mail? If direct mail can’t effectively communicate this rather simple message, perhaps, that is money better spent hiring someone to network.

      Perhaps, aid agencies need to coordinate their efforts and campaign as larger entities. Many already do. Perhaps, aid organizations should be consolidated to get greater efficiencies. Perhaps, aid organizations need to sharpen their message so their seems to be less choice (E.g. All those other organization do X, we do y, and we do x + y, which do you prefer? If an aid organization is not serving a specific and genuinely unique need not serviced by others, perhaps it should not exist.

      Government is exactly one of the classic examples of where persons makes choices on our behalf because we think it is better for a centralized body do so. Now here is a useful thought that came to me while thinking about your response. One of the standard arguments employed by persons who don’t favor taxes is that if taxes are lower people will have more disposable income and be more willing to give through private charities. This claim may in fact be false, if the phenomenon of choice overload is relevant. As governments provide less resources, more individual charities will spring up and more choices will be created which will, in turn, encourage folks to not give at all because of the amount of choice. Perhaps, they will only give to their peer groups and some other groups will be under-serviced. So, perhaps charity giving is an example of a “market failure” and government must necessarily provide leadership. Choice overload may be another reason in favor of a basic income to eliminate poverty ( for the a useful opening statemnent on the subject of a GBI, click here) or government spending on health care generally and rare diseases specifically. As a way to harness the power of independent judgment, maybe governments should require all persons to give ten per cent of their income to some registered aid organization of their choice (presumably, in exchange for lower taxes).

      Also, I meant to imply but perhaps did not say explicitly I am not convinced this strategy in itself is sufficient but it seems to me that it may be necessary to any comprehensive and effective strategy. What other elements do you think are required? What in your experience has worked?

      Thanks again for commenting. You always keep me thinking.

  2. The United Way functions very much on this principle. And they are highly successful fundraisers. Their whole platform is to give them your money and let them worry about the administrative mukaluk. In fact I think they even have only 3 choices for how to direct your money. Building strong communities, marginalized populations, or some categories like that. And they are highly successful with their workplace campaigns. You can set it up so your donation just comes straight off your paycheck. No muss, no fuss.

    It’s not that I disagree with your theory. I think it’s very valid.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that looking at it from an insider’s perspective, it’s not something that works in practice. I have seen agencies try to work together and fail because they disagree on philosophy. One agency is abstinence based and the other is harm reduction based. It’s like Christians and Buddhists trying to work together, they just don’t speak the same language.

    So while the United Way is very successful, they’re not actually fixing societal problems. We still have homelessness, poverty, and many different marginalized populations in Canada. And we’re an intelligent first world nation. So something else needs to happen to
    ‘shift that paradigm’ (a piece of industry lingo that comes up in every single job interview and I have grown to loathe). In theory, the United Way has provided a solution for that problem. But in reality they haven’t.

    I’m glad my…fuzzy headed…late night ramblings get someone thinking. 🙂

    1. United Way did come to mind as I finished this piece….

      Question: if the United way is “not actually fixing societal problems” by running (we’ll assume for the sake of argument) an effective aid agency, when do we get to say a person or organization is fixing societal problems? I think we should say, given our assumption of effectiveness, that the United way is fixing societal problems even if they haven’t singlehandedly eliminated all of them in one fell swoop. Moreover, I think we’d help achieve the longer aim of eliminating all injustice by saying, hey, look these guys are making a difference and all of us could make a difference if we adopted similar strategies — then, maybe even the Buddhists and Christians will start working together.

      I don’t like talk of “paradigm shifts” because it again implies that we need some massive change when in fact I think the answers seem pretty straightforward. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to get the one we’ve got to turn more effectively.

  3. Agree that a forced tithing (i.e. from the government) would make a huge difference. Some aid organizations have sort of a take on this – the monthly dollar/day to support a child/species/forest in need. The funds are automatically debited each month – it is great. Because I am a bit of a zombie in all aspects of my life, whatever is automatic and doesn’t require thought works the best for me. We’re kind of a nation of zombies – that’s why we need the forced tithe.

    1. I got to say, I kind of love this line, “We’re kind of a nation of zombies – that’s why we need the forced tithe.” Shame that it’s too wordy for a t-shirt

    1. Yes and no. I don’t think any trait is always necessarily a problem. If you are self-aware enough to know there is a problem worth being tithed for, that seems pretty good. If the right leader comes along, the zombie masses could be directed more easily into the right direction.

      Also, I think if a person lets the plight penetrate too much, there is risk s/he will do nothing out of despondency. Balance. Let in plight enough to know there is a problem that needs attention, but don’t let in so much that we walk around in tears all the time.

  4. I sometimes wonder if there is an underlying sense of guilt that most people feel, which can cause a certain defensiveness, that makes people angry on some level that they have to do something?

    I do also wonder if as a socety, we’ve become less compassionate over the last couple of decades. Let’s take a couple of obvious examples:

    1) we elected Mike Harris, TWICE. The Common Sense Revolution was a vicious assault on social programs and those who have trned to them for assistance.

    2) How many of us have found at some point that we have some form of reaction where we resent homeless people or oters on the margins “accosting” us for change, or making a disturbance, particularly if it’s close to where we live? There seems to be an increasingly vocal and influential number of people who view homeless and poverty in the Market/Lowertown area as a nuisance, not a problem, for example.

  5. I have been helping some Non profit organizations wiht getting some trucks to help them with their cause some organizations use trucks to deliver food, clothing or bedding to the homeless. I found that Uhaul sells out their used trucks. This has helped a few people in obtaining trucks to help their cause. If you are interested or try sharing to get the word out. It really does help and makes a difference.


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