Heart, Head & Statistics: Donor Responses to Human Need

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November 5, 2014; NPR

As the foreclosure crisis swept the nation in 2007 and 2008, even before politicians and many in the press seemed to grasp the event, the issue seemed overwhelming. This author conducted a review of potential responses from the field operations of a national nonprofit community development intermediary and found the intermediary’s field staff largely daunted by the enormity of the problem, unable to figure out what they, at the city level, and the nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs) they funded could really do about the cataclysm of foreclosures that was undoing years or even decades of community development progress in some neighborhoods.

However, in the wake of the Occupy movement, the largely volunteer sui generis movement that popped up in communities across the nation following the Zuccotti Park takeover by protesters in 2011, some Occupy offshoots took on individual foreclosures, helping individual homeowners fend off banks and sheriffs who moved on their properties. For example, Occupy Fights Foreclosures, apparently affiliated with Occupy Los Angeles, has four stories of individual foreclosures that have sparked Occupy intervention. While each case has its distinctive elements, they are all personal, such as this case of Harolyn Rhue:

Harolyn is a disabled woman who survived a traffic accident when a drunk driver ran a red light. After the tragic event, Harolyn managed to pick herself up, went to school, and got a masters degree. After many sacrifices, Harolyn bought a home, worked for a bank, and designed clothing for disabled people. Unfortunately, she was taken advantage of her disabilities and was given a predatory loan. Wells Fargo has refused to work with her after her payments kept rising. Ms. Rhue was always responsible and paid her mortgage on time. When the payments got higher, she notified Wells Fargo and asked over 10 times for a loan modification. In August of last year, while awaiting for a review of her loan modification, Wells Fargo sold her home behind her back to an investor and now she is facing eviction. Wells Fargo refuses to take responsibility for what they did to Ms. Rhue. She now has turned to Occupy Fights Foreclosures to help her fight Wells Fargo’s wrongful foreclosure and pending eviction. Harolyn’s story is a mirror of countless of other homeowners that have been victimized by their bank’s greed. On January 4th, 2013, Ms. Rhue filed a formal complaint with H.U.D. for discriminatory housing practices by her lender, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. During our initial investigation, we have noticed some very serious violations of the foreclosure process and documentation. On May 30, 2013, Ms. Harolyn Rhue was wrongfully evicted from her home by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. They violated Harolyn’s bankruptcy stay and kicked this disabled homeowner out to the streets.

Occupy activists marched on Rhue’s behalf, excoriated Wells Fargo for its behavior and policies, and promised more actions. In Atlanta, Occupy activists worked with homeowner Steve Boudreaux against a Wells foreclosure, an Occupy group in Minnesota is standing by homeowners Jaymie and Sergio with petition campaigns against foreclosures by JPMorgan Chase, and there are other examples around the nation. The Occupy activists are motivated by an enmity toward corporate greed and societal socioeconomic inequality, but the actions that the activists pursue with vigor and in some cases with positive effect are around individuals. Perhaps grappling with the concept of millions of dispossessed homeowners is simply too difficult, but dealing with individual cases, like those of Harolyn, Sergio, Steve, and Jaymie, allow for an emotional and psychological connection with real people, not large statistics.

That may be the part of the point of research conducted by Paul Slovic, a psychologist from the University of Oregon. Slovic’s studies reveal the different reactions of donors and volunteers toward the individual need of “a young girl suffering from starvation” versus “the same story of the starving little girl…but this time, also told…about the millions of others starving from starvation.” Slovic says that rationally there should have been no difference in the reactions, but the group given the statistics “gave about half as much money as those who just saw the little girl.”

The challenge for nonprofits here is not that Slovic’s research may reveal the power of the heart in responding to the little girl’s starvation. It is that the statistical information actually significantly reduced the willingness of people to give to the same little girl.

“As the numbers grow,” Slovic explained to NPR, “we sort of lose the emotional connection to the people who are in need.” Like the reaction to the scale of the foreclosure crisis, Slovic’s analysis suggests that the enormousness of the statistical information he provided on starvation makes volunteers and donors think, “Nothing I can do will make a big difference.”

“It’s really about the sense of efficacy,” Slovic says. “If our brain…creates an illusion of non-efficacy, people could be demotivated by thinking, ‘Well, this is such a big problem. Is my donation going to be effective in any way?’”

For all us writers and activists who love recounting describing the magnitudes of social problems, Slovic’s research might cause some rethinking. How can the information on the various social crises that are on the agenda of the nonprofit sector, such as the Ebola crisis or long-term unemployment or racial and economic disparities, be presented in a way so that the emotional power of the individual stories like those of foreclosure victim Harolyn Rhue do not become overwhelmed by statistical information that actually ends up demotivating and de-energizing? –Rick Cohen