Why do people – with plenty of worries and expenses — give hard-earned money that could otherwise be spent on their own families, taxes and bills to complete strangers via philanthropy? It’s not a rational thing to do.
This is a question that puzzled Charles Darwin. While known for his theory of “survival of the fittest” he also posited the notion of “survival of the kindest,” finding sympathy to be the strongest human instinct.
Recent research in psychology agrees with this notion, finding that human beings are more wired to be selfless than selfish. Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits. In other words, if we don’t take care of one another as a community we will cease to thrive and survive.
Recent philanthropic research validates the fact that giving is ruled by the heart; not the head.* It’s surprising how many nonprofits don’t seem to understand this when it comes to creating communications materials. How often do we receive letters, brochures, annual reports and the like filled with numbing facts, figures, graphs, charts, fractions and percentages … 25,000 people helped; 14% more than last year; 15% living below poverty level; 78% are women of color; 15% have a disability; just 16% spent on overhead, and on and on. – each fact making us stop in our tracks and think.
It turns out that thinking may be the enemy of feeling. And sympathetic emotions are what drive most giving. We are, at base, ruled by our drives. And when we think too analytically about giving we can put the brakes on our own generous instinct. Things to keep in mind:
1. People respond to STORIES first; numbers second. If you can tell a story about one single mother who came to a Food Bank pantry so she could feed her children, donors can multiply that story by the 200,000 other people who came to pantries with their own stories. Jim Collins, in Going From Good to Great, famously noted “We measure our success by the stories we can tell.”
2. Fundraising is not about money; it’s about RELATIONSHIPS. Make your stories relatable. Fill them with personal details. Paint a visual picture. Give your donors the warm glow that comes from helping someone who clearly needs help.
3. In giving, home really is where the HEART is. I searched briefly on Google images, and found thousands of nonprofits using ♥ hearts ♥ in their logos (I’ll bet you can think of half a dozen right off the top of your head). There’s a reason. The heart is evocative of our drive to love, and be loved. Our donors want to love others; similarly, they want to feel good about their gift of love. We can nurture their empathic instincts and give them this gift.
The new science of altruism, building on the physiological underpinnings of compassion, reveals that what’s good for charity, and society, is also good for donors. Everything we do with our supporters – meeting with them, networking with them, engaging in social media with them, thanking them — results in bonding and social connections that can offer them healthier, more meaningful lives. Aside from just feeling good, the U.C. Berkeley research also revealed that those who are most generous garner the greatest respect, influence and power. Could there be anything more win/win?
What are your thoughts? When donors start thinking, do they stop feeling … and giving? Can we demonstrate results and impact without drowning our donors in data?