Many new clients we work with express concern about constantly asking donors for help. Deep down, it feels like bad manners, like they’re asking for favours and never returning them. And then when we talk to them about psychological techniques, they feel icky, as though they’re manipulating old ladies into parting with their money.

I’m here to tell you to stop it. Stop feeling bad. The truth is you’re helping your donors just as much, if not more, than they are helping you. They are receiving proven and priceless benefits from giving. That’s not just me saying that to make you feel better so you can wring more money out of them. It’s proven psychology and neuroscience.

The good ol’ wiifm and pain points

Let’s start with the psychology. Let’s go back to the classic marketing principle of WIIFM: what’s in it for me? As you know, people are more likely to change or act if they understand how it benefits them. So what’s in it for donors when they give? Why do donors give? After all, it makes no rational sense to give your money away.

It turns out there’s a lot in it for them: meaning, purpose, connection and a warm glow (we’ll talk more about this soon). To understand this, let’s go back one step further to another classic marketing principle: pain points. If your donors were a customer segment, the first thing you would do is figure out the functional and emotional problems they need to solve – their pain points.

Let’s look at some:

“The world’s going to hell in a handbasket and there’s nothing I can do” They see the disasters, the fires, the climate change, the poverty, the violence, the suffering – and they wish they could do something.

“People need people” They crave connection and relationship. It’s a core human need and is, in fact, the number-one factor for happiness.

“For God and country” They have a deep need to feel part of something bigger than themselves. A sense of purpose, a sense of having something that will outlive them. It’s why people join movements or religions; why they die for their country.

“What kind of person am I?” By giving, donors give themselves permission to see themselves as good people. People who care, are committed/dedicated/passionate/kind/ generous. Or, they can see themselves as animal lovers or humanitarians or innovative problem solvers.

“What’s the point to all this?” And on top of all that, people have an even deeper yearning to feel their life has meaning. To put it simply but profoundly, they want to solve the existential despair of being human.

They mightn’t personally be able to jump on a plane to Darfur or save the turtles or cure cancer, but they can be a part of it through giving. Every time you ask as a fundraiser, you are actually giving: you’re giving them an opportunity to live their values, make a difference and do something worthwhile.

There’s something else you’re giving them too: a scientifically proven neurological boost.

The pleasure of giving

Now let’s move onto the neuroscience. We’ve known anecdotally and by qualitative research that giving makes people happy.

We now have the quantitative research to prove it. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans show which parts of the brain light up during thought processes, allowing us to ‘see’ thoughts and emotions.

A number of research studies using fMRI scans have revealed the neuroscience of giving. A 2006 study by neuropsychologist Dr Jordan Grafman involved conducting fMRI scans on volunteers who had the choice to give money to different charities related to major societal causes or keep it for themselves. The study revealed two interesting insights:

  • thinking about giving makes the pleasure centres of the brain light up – the very same parts of the brain activated by thoughts of food or sex
  • giving money away excited these brain centres even more than receiving money.

Specifically, Dr Grafman and his team found that the mesolimbic system lit up – a part of the brain that stimulates the production of the neurochemical dopamine, which makes us feel good. The researchers said this gives biological proof to the ‘warm glow’ theory – that giving gives pleasure.

In another study by Harbaugh, Mayr and Burghart in 2007, subjects were given a certain sum of money and were required to make decisions about whether to voluntarily give the money to a food bank or keep it for themselves. Participants also observed mandatory, tax-like transfers of their money to the food bank.

The fMRI scans found that when the subjects chose to give to the food bank, the pleasure centres of their brain were activated. When they had to give to the food bank via mandatory tax, the pleasure centres of the brain still lit up but not as much.

It’s cross-generational

The best part of all? These psychological and neurological motivators are true for every human being, across all cultures and generations: Boomers, Millennials, Centennials, Anglo, Asian, Hispanic and more.

These macro motivators don’t replace other micro techniques. You still need to factor in the proven and tested tactics such as well-timed thank yous, premiums, urgency, specificity and all the rest.

So how do we use these insights, apart from reassuring ourselves that we are still decent people? We apply them to every stage of the donor journey, giving our donors the gift of a truly satisfying and rewarding experience.

The gift of a better donor journey

Let’s get this out of the way first: don’t feel bad about using these psychological motivators to persuade and influence your donors. Reminding donors that their support will create a better world is not manipulative, it’s a gift: you’re enriching their life, their sense of purpose, their very identity.

So, don’t just chuck them in as an aside. Flinging these deep concepts around carelessly does both your donor and your cause a disservice. Thank you for donating; you’ve made the world better sounds meaningless when used out of context. Go back to your brand strategy and use these insights as a foundation for your donor-value propositions.

Identify a clear before and after journey for your donors, and use it to create a fulfilling donor experience across all touchpoints.

What is your donors’ ‘before’ state? What emotional problems are they experiencing? Frustration? Despair? A craving for meaning? What is their ‘after’ state? How do they feel and what kind of person are they after they donate? How have they made their world better?

Develop clear messages around these answers and thread them through all stages of their journey:

  • before and after they become a first-time cash donor
  • before and after they become a regular giver
  • before and after they become a major donor
  • before and after they become a bequestor and so on.

Remember, you are helping your donor solve their problems, create a meaningful life, see themselves as good people and get a dopamine boost all at the same time. That’s an experience worth paying for.

Chantel Plum

Chantel has spent over a decade in the not-for-profit sector in charity organisations in Australia and Canada. She is committed to delivering efficient, effective fundraising programs, and ensuring every donor’s gift is valued and respected. With qualifications in psychology, Chantel understands donor behaviour and is passionate about creating exceptional donor experiences to drive long-term engagement and lifetime value.