Nicholas Kristof: leveraging hope into social change.

Whether you’re a foreign aid or nature conservation organization, the stories you tell are critical in creating the social change you want. Marketers are the masters of this, and in a 2009 article in Outside magazine, Nicholas D. Kristof argues that we must adopt their tactics.

“What would happen,” he asks, “if aid organizations and other philanthropists embraced the dark arts of marketing spin and psychological persuasion used on Madison Avenue? We’d save millions more lives.”

Kristof was enraged when his stories in the New Yorker about the large scale horrors he witnessed in Darfur caused little response from readers. Determined to do better, he turned to social psychology research, hoping to give a voice to Darfuris that would elicit action.

One of the first lessons he learned from the literature is that “we intervene not because of stories of desperate circumstances but when we can be cheered up with positive stories of success and transformation.” The next lesson is that people resonate far more strongly with a story of an individual rather than one of, say, millions of suffering Aids victims.

“Readers already knew AIDS was catastrophic,” Kristof writes. “It was a depressing topic whose awfulness their charitable contributions could only mitigate…they didn’t really want to read a sad story… because it just reminded them of all the world’s miseries.”

Adjusting his tactics, he wrote about Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman and rape victim, who used compensation money to build a school because “she believes that education is the way to overcome the kind of attitudes that led to her rape.” After that story went to print, Kristof was inundated with letters and more than $100,000 in checks for Mai’s cause.

Since then he has visited and written about Mukhtar many times. Readers have sent $500,000 to a fund Kristof set up for her with Mercy Corps. “She has used the money to start more schools, a women’s shelter, a legal clinic, and other programs that have made a real difference for women in southern Punjab.” He claims that this overwhelming response is because “she reflects a story of hope and triumph that makes [people] feel good.”

But does telling the story of just one person dilute the complexity of the greater issues at hand? Does it create a readership that are blissfully unaware of the larger context and deep roots of these problems?

In the conservation context, for example, does rallying behind the protection of a charismatic species like a grizzly bear – while hoping to stop forest destruction – ensure that the public will never understand the greater importance and complexity of functioning ecosystems? And if so, does that matter if we get the results that we want (in this example, intact forests)?

I think it doesn’t. I bet Kristof would agree. But the idealist in me had to discuss these ideas until 1 am with my partner Heidi until I could accept this point of view.

“Good people engaging in good causes sometimes feel too pure and sanctified to sink to something as manipulative as marketing,” says Kristof, “but the result has been that women have been raped when it could have been avoided and children have died of pneumonia unnecessarily—because those stories haven’t resonated with the public.”

Maybe that is part of the reason that a fishery still continues for the staggeringly endangered Bluefin Tuna, or why other environmentally calamities continue.

In today’s world, the reality is that people have very little time – but they do care – if they are given a compelling reason to do so. Kristof points out how companies will “agonize” over a new brand of toilet paper: “The messaging will be carefully devised, tested with focus groups, revised based on polling, tested in a particular market, tweaked, and tested again. And that’s for a product whose launch makes no difference for humanity.”

At the same time, he laments that “if an aid group is trying to raise support for a new program that could save many lives, it will often rely on a hodgepodge of guilt and statistics that limit its effectiveness.” Instead, he says, the psychological research shows that we are not moved by statistics but by stories of  “fresh, wet tears, with a bit of hope glistening below.”

Those of us who are working to create change in society should pay attention to what Kristof is saying. His latest book Half the Sky, became a New York Times bestseller and went through seven printings before it was three weeks old.  That creates a lot more change in this world than a book languishing on bookstore shelves.

To read the entire article by Nicholas Kristof in Outside, entitled How to Save the World and Influence People, click here.

3 thoughts on “Nicholas Kristof: leveraging hope into social change.”

  1. Great food for thought. Thank you for your blogging gifts, it is always refreshing to read your posts. I now must muster…

  2. Very thought provoking TIm. While I grudgingly agree that the marketing ends justify the means, I think there is a real danger there too. Zoos are a prime example of this danger. Zoos show people the animals completely out of context no matter how hard they try to recreate the look and feel of their habitat.. People leave understanding nothing about the ecology of these animals and how they rely on and contribute to ecosystems.. Worse they think somehow they can help protect the polar bear without bothering about protecting its habitat or other less handsome species. Interpretive signage certainly helps some, but most people get the message that reinforces their biases and inaction. i agree that its really important to find a simple resonating personal story that focuses on hope and positive change, but it must be change to the actual causes of the problem, otherwise it can be useless or even counterproductive not to mention cruel.

  3. Thanks for the comment Steve. I too accept these ideas grudgingly. I want to see change that addresses the underlying causes of our problems. Yet I admit, again grudgingly, that there are times when a well told story can simulate positive change at the root of a problem, even if it doesn’t address the root itself. This may be a mercenary approach, but at least it produces results. We rarely have the wherewithal to solve large complex problems – and that is frustrating – but Kristof offers some good advice for how to chip away at them, and that is a decent start.

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