Why we need to move away from empathy in our fundraising approach

Written by Vu Le

By Vu Le

Happy Monday, everyone. I hope to see you at the Community Centric Fundraising’s launch event today at 11a PDT (you can still register to join). If you can’t be there, please sign up to get more information on future events. Our next one, on 7/24, will be about the data we collected from the Fundraising Perception Survey. (Spoiler: A majority of the 2300 people who responded to the survey, both BIPOC and white, are not happy with the way our sector has been doing fundraising.) 

I am also thrilled to announce that the Community-Centric Fundraising Website is up! Check out communitycentricfundraising.org! The CCF Hub will serve as a central area for reflection and learning. Already there are several pieces on there, including 

There is also a list of some CCF-aligned actions you can take at your organization. Please keep in mind that these actions, crowdsourced over the years, are notcomprehensive, and this list will change and evolve. The exciting and necessary work of this movement is for all of us to reexamine the philosophies that ground so many of our practices in the sector.

One of those philosophies is our orientation toward empathy. 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. Here’s one: “Empathy is Overrated,” written by Devon Price. And here’s another one that’s particularly relevant to fundraising: “Think empathy makes the world a better place? Think again …” by Paul Bloom. He writes:

“A reliance on empathy is part of the reason why people’s desire to help abused dogs or oil-drenched penguins often exceeds their interest in suffering millions in other countries or ethnic minorities in their own. It’s why governments and individuals often care more about a little girl stuck in a well than about crises that affect so many more.”

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. It is unconsciously easier for our donors, most of whom are white, to empathize with certain issues than others, which explains why during the racist incident where Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper (no relation), many people on social media seemed to be more concerned about the dog she was strangling than about the bird-watching Black man whose life she threatened with violence and death.

This is the critical weakness of empathy. We as human beings are programmed to relate to and help people who are most like us. But what if we can’t relate to certain people or communities? Does that mean that they should not be helped? This is why I roll my eyes every time I see a politician say stuff like “My son came out as gay, and it really changed my heart, and therefore I am now supporting marriage equality.” So if your kid isn’t gay, you wouldn’t support LGBTQ rights?

The role of empathy and the lack of it explains why Black trans women continue to be murdered, why immigrant children continue to be kept in cages to this day, why Indigenous/Native Americans continue to face housing discrimination, why disabled people face insurmountable obstacles finding employment. Our society has not prioritized these injustices because we’ve relied on empathy to move people, but people in power often can never empathize with these issues. Politicians, and again, most of them are white, won’t suddenly have their offspring come home one day and say, “Mom, Dad, I’m an undocumented kid fleeing poverty and violence.”

We need to acknowledge that our fundraising strategies have used empathy to center white donors’ feelings and the things they can relate to and care about. And in the short run, it works. People will give more. But in the long run, it is harmful, as it conditions our donors to support only the people, communities, and issues they can understand and feel moved by, and implicitly gives them permission to not worry about the ones they can’t.

The solution we as a sector must embrace is to move from empathy to trust and justice. Trust asks us to believe the people who are most affected by an unjust system, to take their words at value, even if it’s outside our understanding or ability to relate. It also asks us to accept that the solutions proposed by the most marginalized people and communities would have the best chance of succeeding and to act accordingly. Justice demands that we support those who are most affected by injustice, whether we or not we understand or feel empathy for them. It demands the recognition that our thoughts and feelings are secondary, if not irrelevant, to the realities facing many people with whom we will never completely empathize.

What does this mean for our fundraising practices? We must reexamine the time that we spend trying to get people, especially donors and others with wealth and power, to understand and empathize as a pre-condition for them to act. We have to figure out how to encourage donors to support the people, communities, and issues that they may never fully or even partially understand. We must get people to do the right things because they are the right and just things to do, not because they make people feel good or feel less bad. And that will be much harder than what we know currently works. 

This is not a simple solution. We are caught in a paradox where we need to tug at people’s heart-strings to get funding to help those suffering under injustice and oppression, but by tugging at heart-strings, we condition donors to not care unless their strings are tugged, which further perpetuates injustice and oppression. But we can start by exploring ways to move from empathy to trust, from pity to justice.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.