The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we’ve seen, but our urge to help others in crisis is familiar. When disaster strikes, a common arc unfolds: Media coverage and stories abound, non-profit organizations spearhead relief efforts, solicitations to donate are shared, and dollars come pouring in. These one-time, urgent campaigns are important and play a critical role in helping people in the moment. But within about six weeks, support tends to drop off. Urgent campaigns don’t tend to support the kind of longer-term, intentional giving that is needed in the aftermath of an acute crisis to aid strong recovery.
Although many donors want to help in a meaningful way, the context makes it difficult: the news cycle moves on, our limited attention shifts elsewhere, our emotional impulses fade quickly, and we may forget what we intended to do. No wonder then, that maintaining sustained support following a disaster has been an ongoing challenge for the philanthropic sector as a whole.
Sustained support will be especially important for COVID-19 relief efforts, which will unfold and evolve globally over months, if not years. Right now, people desperately want to help, and many are looking for guidance as to how, in the face of a challenge we’ve never seen before. This is a chance to help people with the means and motivation to give by building the intentional and informed support that leads to better giving — for donors, for the many impacted by the pandemic, and ultimately for other causes and the philanthropic sector as a whole in the long term.
Here are three ideas rooted in behavioral science for philanthropic leaders and those operating giving platforms to support meaningful, effective giving:
1. Help donors reflect on what they can contribute. People fortunate to have stable jobs and good health may find themselves with unexpected financial slack due to reduced expenses and government stimulus checks. But attention is limited, and people may be especially susceptible to single-action bias given the new range of activities that are now perceived as pro-social.
For example, I may intend to donate to help medical efforts. But after ordering takeout from a local restaurant in order to support their business, I feel like I’ve done my good deed for the day. Taking one action like this can diminish the urgency felt around taking action on other issues, even if we care deeply. Providing a simple way for people to reflect on their situation, systematically identify needs, and make a plan to identify how much (and then donate) what they’re comfortable giving during this crisis can help donors follow through on charitable intentions over the long term, helping to combat single action bias.
What might this look like in practice? One approach might be guiding interested givers to make meaningful donations from “extra” money during this time. Helping donors plan ahead and streamlining the donation process can mitigate some behavioral barriers that may otherwise keep people from acting on their good intentions. For example, donation app Momentum has launched Cancel Corona, a campaign to help support sustained, ongoing giving for donors in the current context. The app can “calculate and donate your canceled commutes to people losing work, your skipped meals out to kids missing their free school lunches, or what you’ve saved on your usual bar tab to healthcare workers, vaccine research, and more.” Several sites have also emerged to help people pledge to donate their stimulus checks, for those who can afford to do so.
2. Help donors make informed choices. There are currently many, many organizations to direct gifts to. Response of this scale to COVID-19 is of course absolutely necessary, but for potential donors, the number of options can be overwhelming. Even in ‘normal’ times, deciding where to give can be difficult. The struggle to choose between many charities can lead donors to make suboptimal decisions, or to not give at all even though they intend to.
Credible, timely guidance can reduce choice conflict and help donors feel more confident in their giving decisions. It can also help donors discover high-quality giving opportunities. In our work, we’ve found that expert curation can be an effective tool to help connect donors to organizations making an impact. This model could easily be adopted for COVID-19 relief efforts beyond donation to charitable organizations, like volunteering, peer-to-peer giving, or even a combination of these activities.
3. Consider new models of sustained support. Historically, it’s been difficult to sustain giving in the aftermath of a disaster once the sense of urgency dies down. But COVID-19 is different in a few important ways. This pandemic is a long-term disaster, but as it unfolds over many months, relief needs will change: today we need masks and ventilators; one day in the future we will need resources to distribute and administer a vaccine. Along the way, people will need access to food and other necessities. And in the intervening months, new needs will emerge and change both locally and globally.
Imagine a recurring, dynamic giving arrangement that allows donors to set a monthly automated amount to give, while exerting agency: each month, they receive a short text update on their personal impact, as well as an option to reallocate some of their monthly donation to address current relief needs. This balance of ongoing support and donor empowerment could build engagement throughout the pandemic timeline and remind givers of the personal impact they are having, while effectively routing resources to where they are needed most.
Recovery from a global pandemic will require more than the short-lived and temporary support we’ve seen time and time again during and after disasters. Many people in this moment feel motivated to give and are seeking ways to help, creating a need for thoughtful design that helps them make a meaningful, sustained difference. These three ideas, rooted in insights about human behavior, can help us along that path. As this crisis is unlike any disaster we’ve seen before, we will need a new type of relief effort to match it: one that not only unlocks generosity in the near term, but also allocates resources purposefully and effectively for the long run.
In a time of immense loss, uncertainty, and alarm, the desire to help others remains a source of light.
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