Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Friday, March 15, 2013

Empathy for Sale

I've written about the power of storytelling in fundraising many times over. I've also written about the ethical question of organizations sharing their client's stories (see Who's Story is it Anyway?).  Well, here we go again...

Last weekend, walking along Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, I spotted a gentleman behind a card table set up on the side walk. He appeared to be in him mid-50s, neatly groomed long gray hair, comfortably dressed, ready to be of service. The sign on the front of his table read, "Free Empathy."

Certainly empathy is something that frequently seems to be in short supply in these stressful times, but, I would argue, so are opportunities to show empathy. People are hungry, not just to find somebody to listen to their troubles without judgement, but to reach out and comfort somebody else as well.

By now you've likely heard the story of Karen Klein, the school bus monitor from upstate New York, who was videotaped by a group of young boys who were bullying her to tears. One empathetic person who came across the video on YouTube decided to send Klein on "the vacation of a lifetime" and created an online campaign to raise $5,000 for that purpose. That amount was raised in a few hours. By the time the campaign ended, 32,000 people had given over $700,000.

Each donor could see the total already raised, and knew that the target amount had been reached hundreds of times over. And yet they still gave. The campaign was bigger than simply reaching out to Karen Klein with a virtual hug. The donors wanted to make a statement. They wanted to be part of a movement.

Yes, there are official nonprofit organizations who work on bullying issues that they could have donated to - some of you probably think that would have been a better investment, and you might be right - but the campaign for Klein's benefit offered something more tangible. A story. A story and the chance for direct philanthropic empathy.

Many people I've met over a couple of decades in the nonprofit sector believe that they are highly empathetic, and I believe that's often true. Thinking about which nonprofit staff I've known to be highly motivated and effective workers, versus those who simply go through the motions as burned out bureaucrats, the difference is often empathy. The best workers are those who connect to their client's stories, who feel their pain, and share their joys. Indeed, this is why we are in this sector. The stories are why we do what we do.

So, let me ask you this... Why do some of us expect our donors to be any more connected to our organizations and motivated to support our causes without knowing our client's stories? Why do some of us believe we can raise the funds necessary to do our jobs while hiding every detail of the lives of those we serve?

Yes, protect people's privacy, get permission to use testimonials, etc., etc. You know the drill. But most donors want something beyond a tax deduction. They want a connection. They want a human face. They want a chance to empathize. Just like you do.

Speaking of storytelling... Video is a great way for your organization to share your stories, and the DoGooder Video Awards each year recognize great achievement in nonprofit video storytelling. If your organization has a video you're proud of, you have until March 22 to enter for this year's awards. Head to the DoGooder webpage to learn more.


  1. Agree one thousand times over. It's why I love working with non profit organizations - telling their story with their print collateral is very satisfying. Much more so, I imagine, than creating ads for fast food, or the like.

  2. I love that, "Free Empathy." Wonder if anyone took him up on it.