In an interview with Joan Garry about Community-Centric Fundraising, a colleague asked, “How do we move our donors from sympathy to empathy?” This, in many ways, has been the evolution of our fundraising practices. We are trained to use storytelling that allows donors to viscerally feel what it’s like to be affected by various issues. We are advised to understand and employ the “identifiable victim effect” where instead of overwhelming donors with statistics, we point out specific individuals—with names and faces and hopes and dreams—who are suffering and who could be helped if the donors pitch in.

These strategies work; I’m not arguing against that. Donors do respond better and give more when they are moved. And many important policies are passed because people’s sense of empathy is activated, as we have seen from various conservative politicians who change their minds on various issues because their child has a disability or is LGBTQIA+, etc.

But, there are serious problems with this approach. There are now numerous articles about the detrimental effects of empathy.

Through our reliance on empathy to generate funding, we have conditioned donors to think and feel certain ways. Through empathy-oriented practices, we have been training people to believe that the most important thing is how they feel when they give, and that the worthiest causes to support are those that they can understand and relate to.

But this, in the long-run, is harmful to our communities and to our work of creating a better world. Many of the issues we are trying to address are difficult if not impossible to generate empathy for, due to racial and other dynamics at play.

Read the full article about empathy-driven funding by Vu Le at Nonprofit AF.