How can nonprofit leaders and movement builders share information in a way that inspires action? New research reveals seven key principles.
You’ve probably been there yourself: sitting in a doctor’s office, reading the results of your recent blood test. Learning information about your own body is fascinating, but the numbers on the page are rarely enough to motivate you to improve your life.
Information can be empowering when people reinterpret information through social and emotional lenses, and then they act on it.
GlobalGiving partnered with the Omidyar Network and Feedback Labs to dive into 168 research papers from 10 different fields to better understand the conditions under which information can be empowering. We sought to understand how nonprofits, movement builders, and other social sector actors can more effectively communicate information in a way that creates meaningful change.
These are the seven key principles, based on the research and experience synthesized in our report, for understanding how the reinterpretation of information may—or may not—empower people to make their lives better. Principles 1, 2, and 3 speak to how information empowers through reinterpretation, and Principles 4-7 speak to how we can support that reinterpretation—and get people to act.
1. Interpretation is social.
The meaning people attach to information depends on the mix of social groups to which they belong. Information initiatives rooted in or targeted at existing social groups can be successful. Leaders and authority figures can have a major effect on how information is interpreted and framed.
2. Reinterpretation is power.
Empowerment at scale depends on encouraging collective, conversation-based reinterpretation. Reframing the present circumstances as an injustice to be righted rather than a misfortune can help create wider movements that go beyond empowering people one by one.
3. Demand rules.
The most effective intermediaries are able to provide the specific information and social bonds that people are looking for; domain expertise alone is not enough to support empowerment.
4. Vivid narratives persuade.
Using vivid and emotional narratives and explanation to describe experiences can persuade people to interpret events and information differently. This dynamic can both unite and polarize social groups.
5. Information must rise above the noise.
Empowerment is built via dialogue, which competes for time and attention with other causes, choices, and distractions. Institutions, individuals, and algorithms can help focus attention on information.
6. Incentives and repetition cement new behaviors.
Incentives can spark new behaviors, and practice; repetition helps make behavior change stick. Persistence is critical. When support is removed, desired behavior change slows or stops (and sometimes even reverses).
7. Ice cream melts.
The effectiveness of information-related tactics intended to empower may not generalize across either contexts or time. Empowerment demands long-term commitment, regular re-appraisal of strategies, and ongoing tactical adjustment.
I got a glimpse of the first principle—that information is social—when GlobalGiving conducted an experiment several years ago. With Lalin Anik and Dan Ariely, we experimented with showing donors different contingent matches to see what contingent match would prompt the highest percentage of donors to be more generous.
Donors were promised a 1-1 match for their donation when X% of others also upgraded from a single donation to a recurring donation. So, if you thought about a match as a “personal” benefit, and you wanted to maximize the likelihood of a match, you *should* prefer a lower %, as that is mathematically more likely. Yet, more people upgraded from a single to a recurring donation when they were presented with the promise of their donation being matched when 75% of others also upgraded.
People were willing become more generous and to forego their “personal” benefit when presented with the possibility that a significant majority of others would behave as they did. Of course, we don’t know what their actual motivations for upgrading were. Did they like the idea of being part of a generous majority? Did the high contingent match somehow prompt donors to think that they would be helping someone else meet their match? But there is something here about action being prompted by being part of a larger group—that information has more power to persuade even when it is just presented as being part of a larger group.
See if one of the seven principles above speaks to your work by downloading the full #InfoPower report below, which includes a helpful checklist of questions a team could use to increase the likelihood its initiative will empower the people it seeks to serve.
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