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Neuroscience Meets Fundraising: Gentle Art of Teaching JOY of Giving

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joy of giving

Let’s talk addiction.

That’s something we think is related to the brain, right?

We think some folks have “addictive personalities,” while others may simply enjoy something so much – like chocolate – that they’ll say they are addicted.

Guess what? 

Philanthropy is addictive too.


MRI data show us when people even simply contemplate giving, the pleasure centers of their brain light up. The very same area of the brain that lights up when we eat chocolate.

You’ve probably even heard of this ‘warm glow’ phenomena, but maybe you didn’t give it much credence.

You should!

There’s something called the nucleus accumbens that pulls us towards doing something that will give us a degree of joy from making a decision. To eat. To have sex. To go shopping. To make a philanthropic gift. The greater the pull, the more likely we are to decide to act (or, perhaps, succumb) in order to get our reward.

You certainly want folks to succumb to your call to donate, right?

Well… there are smart ways to do this if you understand and harness the power of dopamine.

How to Transmit Joy of Giving to Donors

Don’t worry you’re ‘manipulating’ folks by using this knowledge you’re gleaning from neuroscience. Rather, you’re helping to transmit joy.

You see, dopamine is what’s known as a neurotransmitter. When someone eats chocolate, or takes an addictive drug, their nerve cells release dopamine that transmits a feeling of joy that rewards them for their act. It feels so good, they’ll do it again and again.

It turns out the human brain is wired for generosity. The joy of giving is so strong that we prefer to give money away than to receive it!

Anecdotally, I can’t tell how many volunteers and donors have told me through the years: “Claire, I get so much more out of this than I give.”

To me, this science is super interesting because I grew up in fundraising learning from Hank Rosso, Founder of the Fundraising School, who said: Fundraising is the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.  

I don’t know if Hank knew about the neuroscience research, but he certainly understood human nature. Call it science or art, and it’s certainly some of both, it works.

How the Personal Touch Enhances Joy

Another of the fundraising profession’s leading gurus is Si Seymour who said “You won’t get milk from a cow by sending a letter…The only way to get milk from a cow is to sit by its side and milk it.” Seymour was talking about the best way to ask for a major gift. Up close and personal.

I don’t know what Seymour knew about neuroscience but, again, he was on to something about human nature.

It turns out the human brain is also wired for human attention and interaction. Put this together with how people are wired for generosity and you’ve really got something powerful!

Maybe if you pay really special attention to people, and combine this with a philanthropic ask, you’ll bring even greater joy and reap even greater rewards!

It helps to understand the similarities in findings from functional MRI research on both the placebo and philanthropy effects. 

How the ‘Drama’ of Donor Cultivation Brings Rewards

Placebo, translated from Latin, means “I shall please.”

At work are the feel-good molecules of dopamine and epinephrine. The placebo essentially releases these molecules by the very act of the placebo having been administered. Receiving the placebo pleases the subject. The mere thought that a treatment has been received causes a beneficial physical response.

Researcher Kathryn Hall, a molecular biologist, teamed up with Ted Kaptchuk, Harvard Medical School Professor, after having her own miraculous encounter with a one-time visit to an acupuncturist. The acupuncturist had dramatically climbed up on the table with her, stuck a needle in her, and led her to wonder “OMG, what’s going on here; what’s this woman doing?”  That led her to wonder… could the drama itself have something to do with the outcome?

Experiments ensued. One split acupuncture subjects into three groups: A received a simulated acupuncture session where it only seemed needles were being inserted; B received a similar pseudo session, but with a lot more interaction with the practitioner, and C received no treatment. Groups A and B fared noticeably better, with Group B – where there was a lot of interaction – had considerably better results. Using MRI they were able to find consistent patterns of brain activation in placebo responders that showed anxiety relief, changes in blood chemistry, and reduced pain.

Again, the best outcome was the one that involved considerable interaction with the practitioner.

Seems like a clue for fundraising practitioners, doesn’t it?

The donor-fundraiser encounter is fundamental to the ‘philanthropic effect.’

If Giving is So Joyful, Why is Fundraising So Hard?

Philanthropy facilitation is both art and science.  

And, in both spheres, there’s a lot going on.

When it comes to the brain, there are multiple parts all fighting for attention. For example, our frontal lobes are where rational thinking comes in; this area of the brain can alert us to the downsides of giving. Our amygdala is where we feel fear and panic, something that stops us in our tracks. We’re also wired to avoid loss and, sadly, fear of loss can weigh heavier than hope of gain.

This is where gentle art comes in again. And, perhaps, a little bit of reframing. As I like to say, philanthropy, not fundraising

Come from a place of loving and giving, rather than a place of hating (“fundraising is yucky”) and taking.

Kaptchuk said something about the placebo effect that particularly struck me as related to the role of philanthropy facilitators (aka fundraisers): Medical care is a moral act, in which a suffering person puts his or her fate in the hands of a trusted healer.”

Substitute ‘medical care’ for ‘fundraising,’  ‘suffering person’ for ‘would-be donor’ and ‘trusted healer’ for ‘philanthropy facilitator’ and it’s arguable fundraising is also a moral act. One in which:

  • A prospective donor – ‘suffering’ from lack of meaning and happiness in life…
  • Puts their potential for added joy and purpose in the hands of a trusted fundraiser who…
  • Facilitates ‘feel good’ joyful philanthropy.

Fundraising is about teaching the joy of giving. By not asking, you deprive people of the opportunity for joy. And by not approaching donors with warmth and care, your deprive them of even greater rewards. 

Think of this (it comes from the placebo research, but I find it equally applicable to the philanthropy effect):

 “[T]he brain translates the act of caring into physical healing, turning on the biological processes that relieve pain, reduce inflammation and promote health, especially in chronic and stress-related illnesses.” 

Want to cure what ails individuals and the world simultaneously? 

Practice the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.

You have the power to give people purpose and joy.

The better you get to know folks, the better you can tailor your proposal to their interests. Use this major donor prospects guide to inform what questions you should ask to get to know your prospective major gift donors before you make the ask.

How to Write a Fundraising Plan in 2 Steps!

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