Appeal to donors using the story of the individual

Studies have shown that people are inclined to be more generous towards someone if the person is an identified individual, as opposed to a statistical life or someone who is at the same risk but with no name, face or story.

It shows that people are more likely to donate to help the cause of one person they have some sense of acquaintance with rather than a group of unidentified people, even if donating to the group would ultimately help more people.

We see this theory in action constantly, and telling individual stories is a technique used by many of the largest charities in their campaigns, such as Children in Need and Water Aid.

Telling the stories of individuals allows the viewer to feel more of an emotional connection with the person and this creates a stronger sense of wanting to help them. Even though many other people are suffering in the same way, simply the fact that this individual’s story is being told has a profound impact on the feelings and behaviour of potential donors.

It may seem like an obvious sentiment, that reading a harrowing and emotional story of the plight of an individual in need will inevitably evoke an emotional response in any decent human being, making them want to help. However, alongside this broad idea, looking at the studies and specific details of this phenomena can give us insight into how we can tailor a website or campaign in certain ways to ensure the best possible response from readers. 

With all of this in mind, here is a handy list of simple adaptations that you can make to your website, social media, or other fundraising channels that, according to research, will persuade people to donate to your cause.

Use a single person in case studies

As well as the importance of a case study being identifiable as an individual, it has also been found that a single person will receive more support than a group of people all in need of the same help. A single identified person will gain more support than a group of identified people, so use one person as the face for everyone. 

Portray multiple people as a unit 

If you need to use a statistical group of beneficiaries that aren’t individually identified, portraying them as a coherent group has been shown to be effective and reduce indifference towards statistical people. The number one is powerful, so a group of people could be portrayed as a family or another kind of unity, rather than just ‘many people.’

Get your audience to think emotionally  

One model of the human mind describes two distinct systems, one for thinking analytically and one for thinking emotionally. It has been shown that people who are already in an analytical state of mind will react less well to emotional content, and vice-versa. Therefore, having statistical information presented alongside case studies may dampen the emotional response that readers have from reading case studies.

It may be a better idea to present data and statistical information separately, for example on a different page of the website. This is because the analytical and reasoned thinking required of processing statistics may undermine any intuitive emotions for case studies.

This is backed up by one study which found that when statistics were presented alongside an identified person in need, donations decreased to less than when there was just a picture.

Reduce distance between reader and beneficiary

People are more likely to be generous to others who they can identify with, for example, if they or somebody close to them has been through something similar, as they have first-hand experience of the issue.

Therefore, feeling like they can identify with a case study will make the reader more likely to donate money to help them.

Even very discreet uses of language can foster this feeling of identification in a more abstract way, even if people aren’t obviously connected to the group they are helping.

For example, using language which evokes ideas of friendship or humanity can make people feel less distant from people with problems they ordinarily can’t relate to, and they will therefore be more inclined to help them, as this sense of connection will increase generosity. Statistical lives which aren’t individually identified cannot have this effect.


All researchers and their studies described can be read about further in: ‘Cohen, I., Daniels, N., Eyal, N., & Adler, M. (2015). Identified versus statistical lives : an interdisciplinary perspective  ([First edition].). New York: Oxford University Press.’

Share This
Skip to content