Caring In Crisis: What Can You Do To Get The Public To Respond?

In the nonprofit sector, we would like to believe, if only people knew what was going on, they would do something. Yet, we see crises around the world persist without massive outrage and public support. Why? And what can nonprofits do about it? GlobalGiving’s Alison Carlman looks for answers in a new book, “Caring In Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs.”


The Big Question

What causes the public to respond in the way they do to humanitarian crises, and how can nonprofit organizations best engage potential supporters?

What They Tested

Drawing on focus groups, individual interviews with member of the UK public, and interviews with NGO professionals, the authors of a new book, “Caring in Crisis,” explore the emotional and psychological factors that influence the way people respond to humanitarian crises and disasters. The book then features a dialogue with practitioners and researchers, and addresses implications for NGO professionals that communicate about these causes.

Why It Matters

Many of us in the nonprofit sector would like to believe, if only people knew what was going on, they would do something. Yet, we see crises around the world persist without massive outrage and public support. Each person’s response to suffering of the “distant other” vary greatly depending on a mix of internal and external factors. But there’s a general trend of the growing distrust for NGOs, and growing cynicism about faraway problems. NGOs have traditionally seen immediate fundraising success with “hit and run” appeals—we are telling you about these traumatic events; people are suffering; please help by donating—but this approach often causes collateral damage, making donors feel dehumanized, helpless, and cynical, according to research highlighted in “Caring in Crisis.” The new book provides a critical look at factors influencing giving, and provides important advice for nonprofit communicators and fundraisers looking to build more meaningful relationships with supporters.

The Method

The study informing “Caring in Crisis” draws on on sociology, social psychology, media and communications, and nonprofit sector marketing research. A three-year study, “Mediated Humanitarian Knowledge: Audiences’ Reactions and Moral Actions,” was conducted between 2011 and 2014 by “Caring in Crisis” authors Bruna Seu and Shani Orgad. They use data from focus groups and individual interviews with members of the UK public to gain insight into how people understand humanitarian issues, how they respond to humanitarian communication, and what enables them to respond proactively or prevents them from doing so. Their 2017 publication summarizes their research and presents a dialogue between the researchers and practitioners (including GlobalGiving’s own Alison Carlman).

The Ultimate Outcome

“Caring in Crisis” demonstrates that the public’s responses to NGO communications about humanitarian crises are complex, multi-layered, and conflicted.

The authors introduce the ‘3M’ model, asserting the public responds proactively to crises when the information is emotionally manageable, and the proposed solutions are cognitively meaningful and morally significant to them.

They recommend NGOs seek more nuanced ways to build relationships with supporters that are relational rather than transactional, leading to a more sustained connectedness and deeper public engagement.

The Takeaway

NGOs should seek to build a supporter journey: a long-term relationship which builds and strengthens over time, building connectedness to the cause. They should should seek to understand their audience’s needs and motivations, to strengthen and sustain connection and trust over time. Segmentation helps individuals be recognized as such and have better options that suit them, but marketers must be careful to remember that people are more than just data points. If NGOs continue to use the emergency model (the hit-and-run approach) to raise money after disasters, they should reconsider more sustainable relational approaches for ongoing development issues. This means avoiding approaching people on a continuous basis with the same degree of intensity and demand, and presenting supporters with more than one path to action (enabling local fundraising opportunities, community events, and ambassadorial programs, for example). The goal is to give the public a sense of agency derived from their involvement, preventing fatigue, withdrawal, and cynicism. NGOs shouldn’t be afraid to encourage and support action that isn’t channeled directly through their organization. Distant suffering needs to become meaningful for people and integrated in their existing practices of care. Through that, the re-humanization of the sufferer, and a more relational interaction with NGOs, connectedness with humanitarian issues can be sustained over time. And finally, it’s important to build a culture of feedback. Supporters need an opportunity to give feedback on communications in a way that assures them their voices are being heard, acknowledged, and valued.

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Featured Photo: Help Haitians Rebuild After Hurricane Matthew by Mercy Corps

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