How to Get People to Act

Tents on the National Mall in DC (Photo by

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” – Mother Theresa

I want to show you how you can encourage more small acts of generosity. Small acts happen for a reason. Here’s how to give people more reasons to act generously in small–and big–ways.

I’m always amazed how much money is raised after a major tragedy (e.g. 9/11, The Christmas Day Tsunami of 2004, the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan). It dwarfs giving to other good causes, such as AIDS relief in Africa or water conservation worldwide. Of course, there are many powerful and good reasons why a crisis motivates people to give. But a key one may be a primitive mechanism we all have: our “fight or flight” to imminent danger, which forces us to limit our choices, and interestingly, our humanity.

Millions vs. One

For instance, a problem like AIDS in Africa, which affects millions and millions of men, women, and children, can short circuit our humanity because we can’t wrap our minds around the numbers. The numbers are too overwhelming. Whereas the wave of individual stories that naturally follow a crisis evoke a knee-jerk humanitarian response.

It doesn’t always take a tragedy to get people focused on giving. But it does take a deeply emotional and personal story. Take this past summer when a school monitor was bullied by the kids she was hired to watch. The whole thing was caught on video, which got millions of views, and supporters flocked to her aid with small acts of encouragement and financial support. The result was a $700,000 nest egg that ensured she’d never have to ride a bus again.

This first lesson isn’t new, but it is worth repeating.  Numbers are human beings with the tears dried off and don’t move donors to act. Urgent, emotional, and personal images and appeals do.

Turn Off the Diffuser and Focus

My second point is on how nonprofits diffuse their power by focusing on too many things, which diminishes the chances for small acts of support. If people aren’t clear on what they can do, they won’t do anything. That’s why nonprofits have to focus on just one thing.

During my career I’ve worked at six nonprofits. None of them were clear on what their one thing was. They were like a lost beach ball tossed on the waves. What we need are more lighthouses.

Start by picking one or two nonprofits you admire. They’re most likely straddling some dangerous strait and directing their light on saving and protecting lives, easing suffering or delivering people from ignorance. They’re focused on one thing and they do it well. Damn the rest.

Cradles to Crayons, a local nonprofit here in Boston, is directing its light on giving poor children ages birth to 12 with the things they need to thrive at home, at school and at play. C2C isn’t trying to eradicate poverty. They don’t help teenagers. They currently work in just two cities, Boston and Philadelphia. They‘re focused on their one thing, which makes the nonprofit’s branding simple and powerful. They don’t need an ad agency or market research to tell them who they are.

If only most nonprofits were as compelling, focused, and illuminating.

Stop diffusing your light by focusing on too many things. Affix yourself to one hazard, and be the beacon that saves someone from a terrible wreck. Like moths to a light, people will flock to your cause. It’s only then that they can act.