Habit creation, consumers and charity

An unexpected version of cooperation between for-profit companies and the public health establishment yields life-saving results in Ghana. What’s exciting about this project, in which the question put to the companies was “How do you change behavior?”, is that it suggests a whole series of possible cooperative efforts.

If Unilever et al. could help health officials determine why people pursued unhealthy habits–and, more important, how to prompt them to pursue healthy ones–why couldn’t we ask those consumer giants to help us figure out how to make a habit out of giving? Instead of tying charity to purchases–which teaches people that the only way to donate is to have twice as much money to spare as you’re willing to give–we could identify the triggers for genuine charity and figure out how to insert those into people’s daily lives.

The Nonprofiteer is often skeptical of the notion that foundations should invest in research about social problems rather than in their solution; in many cases, the solution is already available and research is beside the point. Likewise, she’s often moved to snort when she hears philanthropies describe themselves as “convenors” of all those who might have something useful to say about a problem, as though the act of bringing people together were all that might be required to spur them to useful action.

But we don’t actually know as much as we need to about how people give, which is likely to be nearly as important as why; and bringing together consumer companies (with their habit-forming expertise) with philanthropies and charities (with their sector-specific experience) might really produce a valuable new synthesis.

So who will take the lead in strengthening the sector by asking consumer companies to contribute their survey-research and marketing smarts to determine how people can be made more responsive to charitable appeals? Maybe the answer is different for different parts of the nonprofit sector–people give to the arts if they’re reminded of their importance to children, but to health-care based on threats to themselves–but just knowing that (instead of speculating) would be a huge boon to everyone–especially those of us whose livelihood depends on separating people from their money.

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