We are animals: the case for empathy

Published by Alan Clayton on

IFC series

When on holiday recently in Iceland on a remote, deserted road I saw two sheep being hit by a truck.  I stared aghast as one twitched and quivered in its death throes, paralysed on its back, the second, hind legs, pelvis and spine crushed by giant wheels, trying to drag itself to safety on its remaining two legs.  It was awful.  The sheep cried constantly and would not give up in its pointless efforts to survive.  If I could, I would have done just about anything to help. But I had no gun, no way to put both poor souls out of their misery, so had to wait for the local farmer to do it, eventually, a painful, truly gruesome twenty minute wait.

Why did I so desperately want to help?  Why did I cry (after all, I eat lamb twice a week…)?  Why did I shake so?  Why did I feel so terrible, helpless, guilty and despairing that I could do nothing practical for those poor creatures, beyond suffering with them?  Why can I not forget this incident, a common enough occurrence in these parts?

Because I am an animal too.

Therefore I literally feel the pain of other animals. You do too. We feel their emotions, their desperation, their cries of anguish, their pleading to understand and survive.  I, like 99 percent of people have a wonderful thing – empathy.  It enables me to feel what you are feeling, and vice-versa.  It makes me want to help you.

The most basic emotion

(1) Empathy.  It means that somehow, we just know how our cat is feeling, that our child needs food or that someone needs our help.  It’s often illogical, it’s unconscious and it’s the most powerful motivator for charitable giving there is.  If you have ever physically felt the pain of a crushed, soon to die sheep you will understand.

(2) Empathy.  Creating a mood or feeling that spreads to another person, or a crowd.

(3) Empathy.  The creation of emotions that compel us to act, rather than think or say.

(4) Empathy.  A fundraising skill so often lost in an overcomplicated world of far-too-long cases for support, complex budget projections, impact assessments, data analysis and profiling, logical frameworks and endless arguments about overhead cost.

You communicate better and raise more money if you communicate with real emotion, therefore creating powerful empathy in those around you and your donors.  All the evidence says this is true.

Yet fundraisers too often hide their real emotional behaviours behind a façade that we refer to as ‘professionalism.’  Instead of just letting our feelings rip, we dress up in fancy language and try to somehow justify our most basic of emotional responses in logical frameworks or analysis.

Competent fundraisers will master the management techniques listed in point (4) above.

Outstanding fundraisers will be able to change the mood of their colleagues, volunteers and donors by mastering the art of personal emotional excellence and the creation of empathy on a mass scale.  Outstanding fundraisers will open their souls and write, speak, tweet, blog and design in an emotionally exquisite way which compels people to act, and to act now.

Technique and training will help us craft sentences and choose good pictures.  But there’s more to it that that.  I credit Tim Longfoot of Open fundraising with this quote; ‘If there are no tears from the writer, there will be no tears from the reader.’  I can’t put it better than that.

Emotions are hard wired and learned young.  They are deep inside us.  We need to take off the over-analytical masks, become confident in our emotional realities and communicate like nature intended – as animal to animal.  Spreading empathy raises vast sums of money and is inspiring and motivating to us and our donors.

I shall be delighted to work through this with you at ‘Fired up for Fundraising’ at the International Fundraising Congress, the Netherlands, 15th – 18th October.  At this year’s IFC we can all take simple delight in being animals once again, and not just at the party.

ifc2013 logoAlan is the sixth IFC speaker to contribute to the IFC Series 2013.

Check out HERE where you can see Alan present at the IFC.

101fundraising is proud to once again be the blog partner of the International Fundraising Congress 2013!

Alan Clayton

Alan works in the inspiration and creative business, for charities, non-profits and NGOs globally. He is a force for rapid and dramatic change and growth, with people power at the front of his philosophy. After a career in national charities, he spent ten years running a full service agency, then formed Revolutionise in 2008. Alan has worked with over 320 clients around the world. He specialises in pitch-winning creative insight and strategy, donor insight, emotional communication and motivation. Alan is chairman of Alan Clayton Associates, Karat Marketing, the telephone fundraising agency in Dunfermline, Scotland and managing partner of the Inch Hotel and Inspiration Centre, Loch Ness.


Ben · October 12, 2013 at 12:20

Great piece Alan. I thought you might want to know though that the quote “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader comes from the American poet Robert Frost originally:

Rebecca Davies · November 28, 2013 at 17:06

The Empathic Civilization: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g

Jan Brandom · January 2, 2014 at 20:56

Excellent article – thank you!

James · February 25, 2014 at 10:52

While I’d agree with the general sentiment I’d like to quickly touch upon Alan’s assumption that ‘we all feel an animals pain’. If this assertion is due to wanting to keep the article short then fair enough – if he actually means it then it’s a misunderstanding of empathy towards others (both humans and non-humans).

The whole point of empathy is that we all have different levels towards different groups – so whereas I may feel empathy towards a homeless person, you may not. You may feel empathy towards a hunted Rhino, I may not.

We have known for decades that people empathise to different degrees about different things. And we’ve know for decades how to measure these differences. Based on his comments above Alan for instance would score very highly on a Believe in Animal Mind Scale, just one of a hundred ways to score someone’s attitudes towards animals.

I applaud Alan’s work in raising the importance of empathy – but we should always acknowledge Empathy is a complex subject.

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