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Live From BBCON: Empathy Gap Stalling Progress

Innovation is sweeping through the nonprofit world and beyond yet there remains an “empathy gap” when it comes to investing in solutions to address society’s problems, according to Nicholas Kristof.

The New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner presented Monday’s keynote at BBCON 2015, Blackbaud’s Conference for the Philanthropic Community, at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas. The 56-year-old best-selling author last year released, with this wife, Sheryl WuDunn, his latest book, “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities,” which came out last month in paperback.

Kristof was given a giant Gambian pouched rat as a Father’s Day gift one year. It wasn’t one that Kristof took home but instead was trained, in his name, to detect land mines. The 3-foot rat has very poor eyesight but compensates with its sense of smell and uses that in de-mining and tuberculosis detection. A human can clear 20 square meters per day in a mine field. A rat can clear 250 square meters. This “reflects a wave of innovation and a revolution that is sweeping through this world of, not just the nonprofit sector, but the world of making a difference,” Kristof said.

This burst of innovation partly borrows from the nonprofit and for-profit sector, blurring the lines between the two, with B Corporations, double and triple bottom line companies, and impact investing. “We’re still in the early part of this revolution,” Kristof said, and for-profits have a lot of learning to do from the nonprofit world. A lot of companies have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs but Kristof said they’ve largely been window dressing to this point. “That will change in the next 10 years, partly out of self-interest,” he said, because it will help companies when it comes to employee recruitment and retention.

Better metrics, better evaluation, and better marketing by nonprofits will contribute to this revolution. Kristof scoffs at charity leaders who say they don’t need to market because they’re changing the world. “If you’re changing the world it is so much more important for you to market than if you’re peddling a cola,” he said.

Kristof often wonders why there aren’t more investments in solutions to address programs at home or abroad, particularly when some of these would pay for themselves several times over if addressed early in life. “I’m coming to believe one of the reasons is an empathy gap. One of our challenges: to try to address that empathy gap, to get more public support and policies to try to bridge that gap,” Kristof said.

The 20 percent of most affluent Americans give a lesser percentage of income than the lowest 20 percent, according to Kristof. One reason for that might be that wealthier citizens don’t see need on a regular basis. They might be intellectually aware of need but it’s not something they typically encounter. “If you’re affluent today, you’re somewhat insulated from need,” he said, adding that it can become compounded when issues affect a specific group of people, either by race, gender or ethnicity.

Once people are insulated from need, they come up with narratives to explain that the disadvantaged and those in poverty are there because of lack of personal responsibility. And while there may be a kernel of truth to that, Kristof said it’s still a conversation that should be had more often.

A story about an individual will create more empathy than a story about a group. “We are hard-wired to be more concerned about an individual rather than a group of people,” Kristof said. “Helping people is harder than it looks, at home and abroad. It takes a risk and sometimes it doesn’t pay off,” he said.

A lot of people would like to help out in some way but see these global problems as too vast to be able to help, like a drop in the bucket. In a sense that’s true, but “I’ve become great believer in drops in a bucket,” Kristof said.

He recalled the story of Romanian refugee after World War II who, while illegally cleaning hotel rooms in Paris, happened to meet a young American woman who convinced her parents and their church to sponsor him to the United States. “They took a risk on him. He didn’t solve the global refugee problem, he was absolutely a drop in the bucket, but it was completely transformative for him,” Kristof said. When he arrived in America, the man eventually shorted his Romanian name — which included three Z’s — to Kristof. It was Kristof’s father. “Take it from me, drops in the bucket, that’s how you fill it.”


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