Compassion fatigue

Krista Tippett recently interviewed Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.  Kristof has become well-known for his writing about humanitarian crises around the world, and has praised the concern of evangelicals for some of these crises.

Tippett and Kristof discussed compassion fatigue and how Kristof tries to work around it by describing an individual who illustrates the larger issue:

Ms. Tippett: But there’s some way you put that and somewhere you said that the emotional response becomes a portal and then rational arguments like numbers can play a supporting role.

Mr. Kristof: Exactly.

Ms. Tippett: It’s really interesting.

Mr. Kristof: That opening, that connection, that empathy, is really an emotional one. It’s done based on individual stories. And we all know that there is this compassion fatigue as the number of victims increases, but what the research has shown that is kind of devastating is that the number at which we begin to show fatigue is when the number of victims reaches two.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Would you tell the story about Rokia and Moussa, the photograph that they used to illustrate this?

Mr. Kristof: Yeah. This is from the work of a psychologist called Paul Slovic. There were experiences where people were shown a photo of a starving girl from Mali called Rokia, a seven-year-old girl, and asked to contribute in various different scenarios. And then also a boy named Moussa. And essentially people would donate a lot of money. If they saw that Rokia was hungry, they wanted to help her. Likewise, when they saw a picture of Moussa, they wanted to help him. But the moment you put the two of them together and asked people to help both Rokia and Moussa, then at point donations dropped. And by the time you ask them to donate to 21 million hungry people in West Africa, you know, nobody wanted to contribute at all.

Ms. Tippett: Because they’re overwhelmed by that, or it doesn’t spark the same reaction that actually enables people to act. Is that…

Mr. Kristof: Yeah. I think it’s not real. I mean, I think that my job as a journalist is to find these larger issues that I want to address, but then find some microcosm of it, some Rokia who can open those portals and hopefully get people to care. And once that portal is open, then you can indeed begin to put in some of the background, some of the context, some of the larger issues, and hopefully get people to engage with that issue.

The blog for Tippett’s NPR show, On Being (it used to be Speaking of Faith), had a bit more on this phenomenon:

In the non-profit world, some organizations have found success by creating a model around this idea — child sponsorship organizations or Kiva, for example. Microfinance organizations weren’t new, but a model in which one could seemingly loan directly to an individual was. As a result, Kiva exploded onto the American donor scene. Even though in both of these cases donations aren’t going directly into the hands of the recipient, Kiva capitalized on the human instinct to take action to help one person in need. Organizations like have used this same model to fund education projects within the United States.

It is not altogether shocking that we feel more compassion when we have relatable stories. But what stands out in Slovic’s paper is a study in which groups were either given the story of Rokia, a list of statistics, or the story of Rokia combined with more general statistics.

“Donations in response to the identified individual, Rokia, were far greater than donations in response to the statistical portrayal of the food crisis. Most important, however, and most discouraging, was the fact that coupling the statistical realities with Rokia’s story significantly reduced the contributions to Rokia. Alternatively, one could say that using Rokia’s story to ‘put a face behind the statistical problem’ did not do much to increase donations.”

My point here isn’t that more people just need to “do something” and “make a difference” as if all well-motivated actions are equally valuable.  I have some more to write about intelligent, biblical compassion, which I hope to do soon.  But compassion fatigue seems to be a reality that we need to think about too, as well as something in human nature that cries out for the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in all of us.



  1. While human overwhelm and failure to multitask, split compassion, or be motivated to make a miniscule contribution against a colossal and aggregately impersonal problem is part of the issue, I think “compassion fatigue” is substantially a defense mechanism against an ineffective model of charity. It means that a particular effort is unsustainable and a better (more “valuable”) solution is required. The statistics just bring this fact into stark relief, which is why they hamper funding.

    I appreciated the link describing Kiva, et al, as micro-refinancers rather than a gateway for direct microlending. People should be made aware of this to create demand for more apt data about the actual process.

    I disagree with using half-truths in order to get charitable funds. If the ends are good, a Charity should be able to demonstrate that fact so the donors can judge it for themselves. Transparency is painful but it sharpens both the donors and the Charity.

  2. I’d point to The Morality of Everyday Life by Thomas Fleming:

    Which points to the ancient truth that our first obligations should be our family, our neighborhood, our city, and those closest to us. I think part of the fatigue these days is that we are constantly exhorted to worry about things thousands of miles away that we have no part in when the family next door might be crumbling and we could care less.

  3. Boy, there’s a lot of good stuff to read and listen to in that post. Just some thoughts off the top of my head…

    Regarding Kiva, I’m glad they are changing the descriptions to be more technically correct, but it isn’t such a big deal to me whether the Kiva description accurately described the difference between the banked fronting the money and being later repayed by Kiva lenders or the bank waiting to distribute the money until Kiva makes the transfer. It is definitely better to give the money to the borrower upon approval, as Kiva’s fine print indicated was being done. Also, in both cases, individual donors are capitalizing private banks which then make all the profit. One thing that wasn’t clear to me at all when I read about Kiva before I started borrowing was that the banks almost always bear all the risk for default. That may make Kiva lenders more wiling to donate, but it must translate into raised interest rates, which strikes me as problematic.

    The biggest problem I have with being a regular Kiva lender (and I am one), is that almost all the banks charge 30%+ interest. It is difficult in some countries to find interest rates that are less than 50%/annum. Under these circumstances, I’m not sure it is truly in the best interests of the borrowers to take out a loan. I wonder if I am supporting banks which are simply preying on the ignorant, the desperate or those who have fallen on hard times in order to make money. Kiva is very up-front about the average interest rates charged for a particular lender and for a particular country, so some screening is possible, but I haven’t found it to be terribly effective. Nehemiah read the Jewish leaders the riot act when they took advantage of a bad situation to loan money at interest to their fellow countrymen. Am I participating in a system that preys on the poor and vulnerable by supporting Kiva loans at interest rates approaching 40 or even 50%? I try to screen out most of this, but as a regular lender, it is time consuming to screen every loan and seemingly impossible in some countries to find lenders at reasonable rates. Hopefully, Kiva will lead to greater competition among banks and open up doors for banks with lower interest rates to more easily capitalize their loans and share their risk. I’m not sure that is happening right now nor even that it is the direction the charity is taking.

    – The section on compassion fatigue was really interesting as well. I’ve set up booths to for child sponsorship in the past, and had mixed results with a 30 second sales pitch based on statistics instead of a story. While my small parish has sponsored 40-60 kids (lots more when a professional speaker came and incorporated it into his humor routine than when I spoke), I’ve always thought that it could be better and wondered how to improve the pitch. I’m personally a huge fan of child sponsorship. In reputable programs, one can usually arrange to visit the child if one will be in the country. Also, one can write regular letters and receives letters and pictures from the child. While there is definitely significant overhead associated with activities such as letter writing, it also compels the organization to focus their activities toward what truly benefits the child. If they have promised to make sure every child in the program has adequate food, basic health care, education and clothing, that helps ensure that the programs are conscious of the end result of their efforts. If the local program does start a small business class for parents or something like that, the class is focused on improving the lives of families such that it lessons the burden for commitments the program has already made. When a personal connection and accountability is established, I think it creates an ideal atmosphere for promoting true community growth.

    – I’m not personally sold on the idea that my charity priorities start at the local level and then work their way outward. Given equal poverty around the world, I might be able to buy it. However, our poor are extremely wealthy by comparison to most of the world. Also, our society is very fluid. My dad spent part of his childhood in a migrant work camp and ate his first tortilla fresh from the pan of a Mexican immigrant lady. However, I have a graduate degree in engineering and my kids lead a life that is a world away from the childhood my father had. Other countries aren’t like that. They don’t have sufficient internal resources to lift hard working people out of poverty and truly do need outside help. Some of my neighbors need my money. The local food bank gives away over 20 million pounds of food a year. Most people in my area have a much greater need for my time and personal friendship, though. Is it better to help a poor, obese American get fresh vegetables, or to help a poor kid in Africa get food, education and a bed net? Both are important, but I’m going to go give more money to help the kid in Africa. The need is more dire. For them, it is literally life and death.

  4. These quotes illustrate the principle; St. Augustine says:

    All people should be loved equally. But you cannot do good to all people equally, so you should take particular thought for those who, as if by lot, happen to be particularly close to you in terms of place, time, or any other circumstances. (On Christian Teaching)

    St. Paul told Timothy the same thing:

    But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

  5. Joel,

    I’ve already reserved the book at the library. It does look like an interesting read. Thanks for the suggestion!

    I agree with the idea in broad principle, and didn’t express myself very well in the previous comment. My reservations stem from the Biblical injunction that if a man doesn’t work, then he shouldn’t eat; enablement vs. real help; divvying up charity of time and money; comparative states of need (e.g., Jerusalem church vs. Antiochan church, Ghana village without water vs. US town with drug/education problem); and the shrinking of our world (I actually have a personal relationship with the international kids I sponsor through Compassion/CFCA whereas the the local food bank recipients are pretty much anonymous). Hopefully, the book will provide a language and structure to integrate these concerns into the overall goal of loving our neighbor, especially those closest to us.


  6. Scott,

    Thanks again for the post. The links to info on Kiva has caused me to think and learn more about business development assistance in the international aid world. I found this article was particularly helpful in helping to flesh out some of my concerns about the burdensome nature of loans at interest and even possible alternatives.

  7. Thanks for the great discussion, guys. I’ve got some new things to read and think about now.

    I like Fleming’s thesis and agree to a certain extent. We have to love our neighbors and care about the communities that shape our lives and the lives of our children. I want to do this but at the same time there is so much information and other things pulling me toward the “global” that it’s a struggle to keep it in mind.

    At the same time, I agree with Doug’s point that there is a difference in need between the people closest to us, even many of those in poverty, and the desperately poor on other continents. I wonder if Christians could do a better job in identifying a few ministries that can really help the global poor to screen out the constant appeals that demand our time, energy, and money.

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