The Moral Calculus to Giving
April 26, 2023
Kevin Schulman, Founder, DonorVoice and DVCanvass
The giving decision often hinges on a moral judgement – is giving to help this person, place or thing the morally right thing to do?
But two people can be a firm “yes” for different reasons since we don’t all use the same morality lens.
There are five morality lenses onto the world.
- Care/harm: Sensitivity to suffering and the desire to alleviate it.
- Fairness/equity: Concern for fairness, justice, and reciprocity.
- Loyalty/betrayal: Allegiance to one’s group or tribe.
- Authority/subversion: Respect for hierarchy and tradition.
- Sanctity/degradation: Reverence for purity and disgust towards perceived contamination.
These aren’t random, people are pretty hard-wired to favor one (or 2) over the others. For example, conservative people often rely on 3-5, liberals 1 and 2. Brands also tend to fit better with a given frame. ACLU is squarely #2, Red Cross squarely #1.
It’s very hard to move a well-established brand from one moral frame association to another.
How quickly do humans make these moral judgements? Conventional wisdom argues moral decisioning is slower, more deliberate, purposeful. If so, it may take a longer letter or conversation or web page to make the moral case. It impacts my communication choices.
Conventional wisdom is likely wrong, at least if imagery is involved. It turns out a static image has me rendering a moral judgement within milliseconds.
But first, what’s going on with the moral decision? Regardless of my moral frame, I answer the “is it morally wrong?” by deciding Role and Harm. Who did what to who and harmful or not?
Consider the bottom image. Seems straightforward – a small child offering food to a person in need. Helping is the right thing to do. But some people may not see the beneficiary as blameless – e.g. he looks fit, able, etc.
And again, this decision is rendered almost instantly. What about the top image? The level of harm seems high but the Role is open to interpretation – who attacked who first and what is the cause of the riot?
If you use an image you likely don’t have the length of the letter or email or webpage to help answer those Role and Harm questions. What to do?
- Use image captions but focused exclusively on telling your Role and Harm story. Generic descriptives are a waste.
- Use headlines or subject lines to tell your Role and Harm story.
- If images aren’t present, your copy has several jobs but among them is clarifying Role and Harm.
Last, but most especially, don’t use one-size-fits-all. The same image can (truthfully) highlight different story aspects to different audiences.
I’ll tell Conscientious people (Personality Tags) and Conservatives and those with a military connection (all tagged on your house file) about the beneficiary’s military service to create a patriotic, dutiful loyalty framing.