Breaking News: Brain Scan Study Gives Fresh Insight into Charitable Giving Behavior

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?

25 Responses to “Breaking News: Brain Scan Study Gives Fresh Insight into Charitable Giving Behavior”

  1. Michael, everything you’ve cited in this study merely confirms what many of us (I certainly hope) have known intuitively and logically all along, and are the premises and assumptions upon which we have based our bequest marketing.

    The only caution that I offer is that there is a vast difference between genuine intentions and actually executing them. That’s where the greatest challenge for fundraisers lies, and that’s one of the reasons not to limit a planned giving program solely or primarily to bequests.

    • Jeff, while I thank you for commenting, I’m not quite sure why you used the word “merely.” I think it is better to say, “The study compelling confirms…” Let me explain why I feel this way. First, there are still many folks out there who actually argue against a donor-centered fundraising approach. I’ve even recently debated some of these folks in LinkedIn discussion groups. Second, there are many development practitioners who simply don’t know this stuff; not everyone is as bright as you and me. 🙂 Third, while a good development professional might already know this stuff intuitively, that intuition alone might not be enough to “sell” the right approach to the organization’s less informed leadership. Fourth, it’s good to have confirmation that what we think we know is right. Imagine if it were the other way around.

      I’m reminded of a conversation I had sometime ago with one of my seminar participants. Following the session, he asked, “I guess everything you were saying is just pretty much common sense, right?” I responded, “Yes, pretty much. And, when it becomes common practice, I’ll stop talking about.”

      I think this study is fantastic because in scientifically confirms the right way to do things.

  2. Fascinating … thanks to all involved. It confirms the idea that legacy giving prospects are long term supporters with a heart connection.

    • Greg, thank you for your comment. Yes, the study does confirm the value of long-term supporters to planned giving. However, there are other types of highly-affiliated folks whether or not they are current donors. For example, consistent ticket subscribers to a theater company exhibit loyalty. Folks in a rural community who have used the only regional hospital are likely to be very loyal. People who volunteer at a homeless shelter are likely to be loyal to the shelter. So, while donor history is one superb way to measure loyalty, it is not the only way. When evaluating prospects for planned giving, we should try to understand the variety of ways our constituents might exhibit organizational stickiness. The stickier the relationship, the more likely the prospect will be to consider a planned gift.

  3. Michael, I purposefully use the word “supporter” instead of what you mistakenly thought I wrote, “donor.” You’ve set up straw dogs. Have another read. And to your list, add to it, “those simply living in the community who don’t have a direct connection.”

    • Greg, I’m sorry. I should have been more clear. What you saw was a wordsmithing problem on my part rather than an understanding issue related to what you were saying. I recognize that you were using the term “supporter” intentionally. I simply wanted other readers to understand that that is a term that means more than folks who give money. I regret that I did not more elegantly present that, and tip my hat to your broader understanding as well. Thank you for the opportunity to clarify.

  4. Michael your best post yet. I am sharing this with my colleagues asap.
    Thank you

  5. Thanks to you and your researcher friends. This is great stuff. Although I tried reading the draft report with some sense of comprehension, I must admit that after only a page or two I skipped ahead to the “Implications” section after I had enough to believe these guys knew what they were doing. (It could still all be made up for all I know).

    Nonetheless, I particularly like that it reminded me that marketing efforts that use deadlines or matching challenges can get the prospect part of the way to a bequest, but can fall flat if we don’t connect to the prospect’s “autobiography” or don’t help the prospect envision the transcendant (immmortal) value of their legacy/bequest gift.

    Now, I know why a retired planned giving officer (somewhat of a mentor) starts with the question…”Where’d you go to high school. Tell me about that.” I remember first meeting him several years ago when I was networking to make a career transition, and I thought it was odd that a 65 year old guy would ask a 40 year old that as his first question. He knew I had gone to college…I was thinking “Who cares about high school?” He told me he often starts a new relatiohship with that question. Now, I understand that he was starting right away helping prospects to paint their autobiographical picture.

    • Keith, thanks for your comments. I appreciate your sense of humor. It would be pretty scary if a scientific study contradicted how we practice development. It’s a far happier day when it confirms what we think we know and gives us deeper insight. Whew!

      I also want to thank you for sharing the story about your somewhat-mentor. As a young journalism student, I remember reading a book about interviewing. It contained an examination of the techniques used by Barbara Walters. At the time, I didn’t think too much of her. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t disrespect her; I just didn’t think she was all that. However, as I read about her techniques, I developed a huge amount of respect for her. Like your somewhat-mentor, she would get people talking about themselves by focusing on something completely non-threatening. She was also a master of the follow-up question and the use of silence. Hmm. I think I have an idea for another blog post.

  6. Michael,

    Thanks — this is a great one. The jealousy region of my brain has gone all Las Vegas in response to seeing your fundraising book cited in an fMRI study. That alone makes you my hero.

    I have a split-personality response to this report:

    As a fundraiser who works hard to get myself to shut up and listen to donors’ stories: I say, “Yep – fits exactly with what I believe is going on in these discussions.” I absolutely love the focus on story. I realize this is an initial study (how the heck did they get it funded?) and would really appreciate a follow up in which they compare bequest intentions to other decisions such as life insurance and burial/cremation/body donation. (When I say “appreciate” there, I mean it the same way I “appreciate” space travel: I’m proud for each new planet we land on, but also a bit sad we don’t find cheese or one of the sexier aliens from Star Trek.)

    As one who used to earn my living reporting on studies like this, I do want to caution about “association” — the term the authors responsibly use — versus “cause” (and thus “motivation”). This study shows that there’s activity in a part of the brain when one kind of decision is made more often than when another kind of decision is made. This suggests motivation…but even if that’s true, I think it’s more likely that it’s one of many complex and interrelated factors. I’m not an expert, but I also think they may be pushing the envelope of statistical significance: They point out that they can only clear the bar for significance by wringing the data through one certain set of tests. I honestly don’t see much reason to doubt their results — but I do respect it when researchers are careful with their language, and I want to ensure the rest of us catch it.

    Michael, again I want to thank you for putting this out there. Provocative stuff, in the best meaning of the term…

    • Rick, thank you for sharing your thoughts. You’ve provided the perfect weekend comment filled with insight, humor, and a plug for my book! Your observation about the careful use of language in the report is right on target. The precision used in word choice may be due, in part, to the fact that Russell James is not just an academic researcher with a PhD. He’s also a lawyer. 🙂 The decision to make a bequest commitment is certainly a complex one with many factors at work. This brain-scan study brings us a step closer to understanding that decision-making process. When understood along with other research on donor motivation, we’re better able to take an approach with our donors and prospects that will resonate with them.

  7. Reblogged this on NonProfit Coaching and commented:
    Thought-provoking research on charitable giving as seen through brain scan, and Michael Rosen’s take on the impact of this study on planned giving.

  8. Michael,
    This reinforces much of what’s in Dr. James’s first book. You boil it down nicely into a handful actionable components that I can share with colleagues. Thank you.


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