An exciting new study from researchers at Texas Tech University used brain scans to garner fresh insight into charitable giving behavior. Specifically, the study looked at what motivates individuals to make a charitable bequest commitment as well as what de-motivates them. This is the first time that Magnetic Resonance Imaging has been used to examine charitable bequest decision making.
This blog post marks the first time that the breakthrough findings of the Texas Tech study have been released to the nonprofit development community. I am honored that Russell N. James, III, JD, PhD, CFP furnished me with a preview copy of his draft report, “Charitable Estate Planning as Visualized Autobiography: An fMRI Study of Its Neural Correlates.” I thank James for providing me with the draft report and for allowing me to share it with you. I also want to recognize Michael W. O’Boyle, Ph.D. who co-authored the report.
While James has written a scientific paper with a suitably technical title, don’t be intimidated. My article will look at the data from a fundraiser’s perspective. If you want more detail or want to explore the science behind the findings, you can download the full report.
The three key findings of the report are:
- Bequest giving and current giving stimulate different parts of the brain. This suggests that different motivators and de-motivators are at work. While the report compares and contrasts the differences in brain activity where current versus bequest giving are concerned, I’ll limit myself here to a review of the findings related to bequest giving.
- Making a charitable bequest decision involves the internal visualization system, specifically those parts of the brain engaged for recalling autobiographical events, including the recent death of a loved one.
- Charitable bequest decision making engages parts of the brain associated with, what researchers call, “management of death salience.” In other words, and not surprisingly, charitable bequest decision making involves reminders of one’s mortality.
So, what do these findings mean for development professionals?
Fundraisers need to understand that charitable bequest decision making is about autobiographical connections, not numbers, such as taxes, or even the needs of the charity. James suggests, “Start conversations by working to trigger autobiographical memories associated with the charity, or the cause the charity represents. The goal is to lay-out for the donor how a bequest gift to the organization fits neatly into their autobiography.”
In other words, we now have scientific evidence suggesting the importance of being donor centered. The study reveals that it is a donor’s own story that matters most to the donor. Therefore, fundraisers should first focus on the donor’s story, his sense of self, his desired legacy, the things that are important to him. Then, the fundraiser can relate the organization’s mission and needs back to the donor’s story. Fundraisers who do this are most likely to achieve the best results.
The report cites a study from C.J. Routley, of the University of the West of England, that illustrates the sense in which charitable bequest decisions are part of one’s autobiography. Here’s how one donor described his charitable bequest decisions:
[In my will] there’s the Youth Hostel Association, first of all…it’s where my wife and I met….Then there’s the Ramblers’ Association. We’ve walked a lot with the local group…Then Help the Aged, I’ve got to help the aged, I am one…Then there’s RNID because I’m hard of hearing…Then finally, the Cancer Research. My father died of cancer and so I have supported them ever since he died.”
The more connected a donor is to an organization, the more it has played a meaningful part in the donor’s life, the more likely she will be to make a bequest commitment. This is one reason why loyal donors make the excellent planned giving prospects. Through their consistent current giving, loyal donors demonstrate the importance of the organization in their lives. To use a marketing term, it’s an indication of “stickiness.”
Unfortunately, though again not surprisingly, the brain scans reveal that thinking about bequest giving makes people think about their own mortality. People deal with their mortality in two ways: 1) avoidance, or 2) symbolic immortality.
One of the reasons so few people have a will is because they just don’t want to think about their eventual demise. So, they keep putting it off. A donor is not going to make a bequest commitment if they don’t have a will or aren’t about to have one soon. Even if a donor has a will, she may be reluctant to revisit it to include a charitable provision because it again conjures images of her demise.
Development professionals can overcome a donor’s tendency toward avoidance by establishing artificial deadlines, appointments, campaigns, etc. For a look at how the National Resources Defense Council used a challenge grant to create urgency in a bequest solicitation mailing, read my post: “Can Direct Mail Secure Impressive Planned Gifts?”
“Once past avoidance, the most attractive [giving] opportunities will be those with permanence, e.g., a building, an endowment, a permanent scholarship fund, a private foundation,” says James.
By the way, for a gift opportunity to be perceived as having permanence, the organization must be perceived as stable with a promising future. If you work for a major university, perceived institutional permanence might be a given. But, if you work for a mid-sized arts organization, you may need to provide some evidence given the closures we have seen around the country, particularly in the current economy.
To most successfully secure charitable bequest commitments, development professionals will:
- Focus on the donor’s story.
- Match the organization’s mission and needs with the donor’s autobiographical sense.
- Establish artificial deadlines and urgency to overcome a prospect’s natural avoidance tendencies.
- Suggest giving opportunities that provide some type of lasting memorial to the donor and assure the donor of the organization’s long-term stability.
For more details, be sure to read the full draft report. For tips that will allow you to leverage the findings of the study, you can consult my book “Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing.”
That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?