Rory Sutherland says the best way to make people perform charitable acts is not to appeal to their philanthropic nature.
It’s to appeal to their self-interest.
In other words: never mind anyone else, what’s in it for me?
Understanding that’s how people work is predatory thinking.

A great example of this is Arunachalam Muruganatham.
He lived in a small village in India.
He wasn’t educated but had an enquiring mind.
One day he saw his wife hiding something behind her back.
He asked what it was and found it was some dirty, bloodied rags.
The result of her menstruation.
In rural India this is a private, almost shameful, thing.
Not the thing people speak about, especially between men and women.
But Muruganatham had a simple, logical brain.
He asked why didn’t she buy the sanitary pads he’d seen in the shop?
She said they couldn’t afford them.
So he decided to make them himself, how hard could it be, they were just cotton after all.
He asked his wife to try the ones he made.
Which is when he found out that menstruation only happens once a month.
So he went to the local hospital, where they train female doctors.
He thought these women would at least be able to discuss it.
But he was wrong, and his entire village began calling him a pervert.
The gossip caused his wife to leave him.
So he got the bladder from inside a football, filled it with goat’s blood, and decided to simulate menstruation himself.
He wore the pad and the bladder, and squeezed out the blood as he walked or cycled around.
Even his mother shunned him, the villagers thought he was possessed by evil spirits.
But worse, his pad wasn’t absorbing blood.
He contacted the makers of the sanitary pads and found the cotton needed cellulose added to it to become absorbent.
He tracked down the machine for doing this, but it cost a fortune.
Out of the question.
So he designed and made his own machine, out of wood and wire.
Powered by a foot-treadle, like an old-fashioned sewing machine.
But getting local women to even discuss using it was impossible.
Very few women in rural India used sanitary pads, most used rags, or leaves, or ash.
So many reproductive diseases came from poor menstrual hygiene.
Yet even this wasn’t sufficient to get Indian women to discuss making sanitary pads.
But money was.
These women had to work, and feed families, for next to nothing.
Muruganatham explained that the cost of sanitary pads in the shops was SIXTEEN TIMES the cost of making them.
If they sold the pads for double, triple, even four times what it cost to make them, anyone buying them would still save 75%.
Money was an argument they could understand.
That was a discussion they weren’t ashamed to have.
And women happily began using his machine to make sanitary pads.
Now he has a thousand machines working in villages around India.
Each machine giving work to ten women.
Each woman making money to feed her family, to educate her children.
Eventually he was given an award by the President of India.
Seeing this, his wife, his mother, and his village apologised.
But Arunachalam Muruganatham doesn’t make a lot of money from his machines.
He says money isn’t the point.

He says “It isn’t poverty that kills. It’s ignorance that kills”.

  • Mark Griffiths

    Great story, but it doesn’t fit the intro. What have ‘charitable acts’ to do with it? If you’d said ‘the best way to get people to overcome ignorance is not to appeal to their rational nature’….

  • dave trott

    Mark, fair point.
    I think it’s the end line that’s wrong, but I couldn’t resist it.
    I probably should have opened with ‘the best way to get people to perform philanthropic acts is not to appeal to their altruistic nature”.
    Also maybe I should have moved the line about “rags, or leaves, or ash” and “reproductive diseases” nearer the front, too.
    Set up his true motivation more.

  • paul c-c

    I think if he’d tested the absorbency using clear blue liquid whilst roller skating or jumping up & down on a bed in slow motion with a smile on his face, he may not have been shunned by everybody. It’s what they do in civilised countries!
    The end line of your post is so true

  • Dave Trott

    Paul c-c, I agree, I think there are 2 stories in there.
    One, how to get people interested in things they’re embarrassed about.
    Not by nagging, but by self-interest.
    Two, education solves problems better than money.
    “Give man a fish, etc”

  • Peter Rufus

    Great insight, Dave — the key to having a conversation around an awkward/ taboo topic is to find a (related) conversation that the audience is willing to have. Simple. Fantastic. Thanks.

    • dave trott

      Yes, that’s a much simpler way of saying (and remembering) it Peter, thanks.

  • David Willans

    Thanks Dave, good tale as always. For things with a positive social or environmental bent it seems most creatives stop at the problem, or the altruistic ‘do good, feel good’ and base the work on that. Very few push on into what the punter gets. It’s not creatives don’t want to make a positive dent in the world, so I guess it’s a budget thing, no time to really stretch it. What do you think?

  • Dave Trott

    Hi David,
    There used to be two boxes on a brief labelled ‘proposition’ and ‘consumer out-take’.
    (Basically input, output)
    On really bad, lazy briefs they would be the same.
    Something like this:
    Proposition: This product is longer lasting.
    Consumer out-take: “This product seems to last longer”.
    You could see the planner had done zero thinking on that.
    If input was the same as output we wouldn’t need planners or creatives.
    Clients could dictate the ads themselves

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