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As part of our ongoing Research Series, The Provocateur welcomes guest blogger and colleague, Dr. Ron Strand, who will be sharing his thoughts this week on how people arrive at their decisions to help.

Ron is an expert in managing large capital campaigns including the first comprehensive campaign that raised over $50 million for the University of Saskatchewan and the campaign that raised over $60 million resulting in the redevelopment of Calgary’s Heritage Park. As the former Executive Director of one of the largest charities in Alberta, Ron led the Conquering Cancer campaign that raised over $30 million to establish a cancer research endowment fund. Parallel to his fundraising career, Ron has contributed to education within the nonprofit sector by teaching at Mount Royal University (MRU) since 2004. Ron supervised the creation of the Fundraising Certificate Program with MRU, which later became the Certificate in Nonprofit Management Program and wrote the Introduction to Nonprofit Management course used by Keyano College He has also written courses in nonprofit management and teaches courses in fundraising, marketing and public relations as a part of the Certificate in Nonprofit Management at Mount Royal.   


Dr. Ron Strand, ViTreo Group Inc
May 7th 2019


Breakfast is important for kids. If kids eat breakfast before they go to school, they are more alert, can concentrate better, and remember more of what they are taught. There is ample evidence, even overwhelming evidence, of these assertions. I’ll dig into this a bit more. But when I was looking into the evidence, I ran across a statement that gave me pause. Breakfast is important because 60% of learning happens before lunch. Not more learning, 60%, an exact number.



I tried to find a reference for this assertion but couldn’t. It’s an example of what mathematician Charles Seife calls “proofiness” in his 2010 book, Proofiness: The Dark Art of Mathematical Deception. Stating exact numbers for a phenomenon when there really is a rough estimate at best is one example of proofiness. Other examples of proofiness I see often in charity appeals, case statements, and on websites include making global statistical inferences from small samples, extrapolating trends, and overstating proportions.

I’m not suggesting charities are intentionally trying to deceive people with the numbers they cite. There are some innocent explanations for misstated numbers. One is the overwhelming amount of research available on some subjects coupled with the need for simplification. Coming back to the example of the importance of breakfast for kids, I entered the terms “children” and “learning” and “breakfast” into Google Scholar. The result was 4410 studies published in academic journals in the last year. I don’t have time to read that many papers, so I skim through some abstracts and conclude that breakfast for kids is indeed important.

There were some interesting details in a few abstracts that led me to read further. One study that appears to be quite thorough was done in Germany by Zipp and Eissing and published this year in the Journal of Public Health as Studies on the Influence of Breakfast on the Mental Performance of School Children and Adolescents. The general conclusion is that breakfast is beneficial. Nothing new in the conclusion, but a couple of things were new in the study, at least for me. One is that a snack at the morning break was possibly more beneficial than breakfast. Another finding was that a chocolate drink was more beneficial than fruit. One more interesting point - breakfast did not seem to have a beneficial effect on kids in grade 9. Kids in that grade performed the same whether they had breakfast or not.

proofiness 2.png

If I were writing an appeal to raise money for breakfast in schools, something I have done in the past, I would never write –

research done in Germany provides evidence that breakfast improves learning for children, especially if it’s a chocolate drink served at 10 o’clock, except for the kids in grade 9.

Even though it sounds a lot better to state –

a German study showed a 17% increase in cognitive performance for kids who ate breakfast at school.

The first statement is accurate, but complicated. The second statement is proofiness.

By now, the reaction of some fundraisers reading this are likely thinking the way around this problem is to tell stories instead of citing numbers. There is ample evidence that a story of how one kid’s life was changed when she started getting breakfast at school arouses more sympathy than statistics about food security. The power of stories like this is based on a phenomenon psychologists call the identifiable victim effect. The assertion is that people make decisions based on emotion and therefore, instilling emotion will result in more donations. Numbers, statistics, tend not to arouse emotion. This is true, but only partly true.



Decisions to help, including helping by giving money, are made with three psychological factors at work. Yes, one is emotional, most often aroused by the identifiable victim effect. Another factor at work is an estimation of impact, also known as perceived donation efficacy. This factor is more calculated and is influenced by numbers and how they are presented. A third factor is the perceived responsibility to help. These decision modes can be summarized as affect-based, calculation-based, and recognition-based. Much has been written about affect-based decision modes, so I’m going to dive into calculation-based decisions in more detail. Hopefully this will provide some insights into when and how to use numbers, especially statistics, in case statements and appeals.

Calculation-based decision making is mediated by something known as the proportion dominance effect. People tend to relate more to proportions than to absolute numbers. This principle is generally accepted and used widely by charities, which is why we see statements like 1 in 5 children experience some sort of issue instead of 1,457,251 children experience the issue. References like this are meant to communicate the size and scope of a problem. The problem might be though, that in communicating the size of the problem, a very large reference group, decreases the perceived impact of a donation. A study by Erlandsson, Bjorklund, and Backstrom published in 2015 titled “Emotional Reactions, Perceived Impact and Perceived Responsibility Mediate the Identifiable Victim Effect, Proportion Dominance Effect, and In-group Effect Respectively” found that decreasing the reference group size of the people needing help, increased the perceived impact, and thus the willingness to give a donation.

The results of another study, done by Small, Loewenstein, and Slovic in 2007 found that people gave less to appeals using an identified victim approach. It makes some intuitive sense that people are going to have a perception that a smaller donation will have more impact when they have a single person in mind. But when presented with statistical victims, they didn’t increase their giving, they decreased it. Another study done in 2016 by Erlandsson, Vastfjall, Sundfelt, and Slovic, published in the Journal of Economic Psychology found that people responded positively when presented with appeals based on an identifiable victim. They also responded positively when presented with appeals based on statistical victims. But their giving decreased when presented with appeals that contained both stories about an identified victim and statistical victims. The message from this study is that either type of appeal can be effective but not if they are combined. Statistical information has a negative effect if it is combined with a story of a single identified recipient of the appeal.

Another interesting thing about calculation-based decision making, is that people tend to judge the severity and importance of an issue by the negative statistics, such as number of deaths, rather than the positive statistics, the number of people helped. In a study of the response to natural disasters, Evangelidis and Bram van den Bergh in 2013 found that people tend to allocate funds based on number of deaths reported rather than the number of survivors. This can make appeals tricky, because often it is the positive messages we want to communicate, but in doing so, it may dilute the perceived importance of a cause.

One concluding note about statistics. Last fall I was on a beach in Florida and was just starting to wade into the water when I noticed the unmistakable grey fin of a shark emerge about 20 feet in front of me. At this point, I don’t care if more people die from falling coconuts than from shark bites. I don’t care that I am more likely to be killed by an encounter with a deer than from an encounter with a shark. There is only one statistic I care about, literally one, and it’s right in front of me, so I’m not getting in the water. Yes, I was afraid, but staying out of the water wasn’t an irrational, emotional decision. It was the smart thing to do. Never going in the water again would be an irrational, emotional response. The challenge as communicators and fundraisers is to be mindful that people make decisions in multiple ways. 



Dr. Ron Strand, Senior Associate
ViTreo Group Inc

Ron is an expert in managing large capital campaigns. This expertise includes pre-campaign planning and feasibility studies, brand development, volunteer recruitment and training, and post campaign organization. Ron’s work spans post-secondary education, healthcare and community. Parallel to his fundraising career, Ron has contributed to education within the nonprofit sector by teaching at Mount Royal University (MRU) since 2004.