Can the act of philanthropy make people feel better?
I say “Yes. Absolutely.” Much has been written about the warm glow that comes from giving.
So why not think about fundraising as a caring act, and fundraisers (aka ‘philanthropy facilitators’) as trusted helpers and healers?
Reframing fundraising in this way can be your key to:
(1) committing to major individual donor fundraising (helping people to be the people they’d like to see in the mirror), and
(2) engaging more staff, volunteers and board members in this noble endeavor (so they experience not just the joy of giving, but the joy of helping others give).
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.
Placebos can be a kind of magic cure.
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. She experienced an almost overnight healing of bad carpal tunnel that had been resistant to any other kinds of drugs or treatment. 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…
“if maybe the drama itself had something to do with the outcome.”
[Put a pin in that idea of “the drama itself” while we get back to the research…]
Hall and Kaptchuk’s findings take their place among other results from neuroscientists that strengthen the placebo’s claim to a place at the medical table, in particular studies using M.R.I. machines finding consistent patterns of brain activation in placebo responders.
“For years, we thought of the placebo effect as the work of imagination. Now through imaging you can literally see the brain lighting up when you give someone a sugar pill.”
— Kathryn Hall, molecular biologist.
Kaptchuk had conducted previous research into the placebo effect and found placebos could relieve anxiety and postoperative pain, change the blood chemistry of patients and produce side effects in a way similar to drugs. Remarkably, more than one-third of patients would get better when given a treatment that was, pharmacologically speaking, inert. One experiment using acupuncture split 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.
Kaptchuk is a believer the rituals embedded in the doctor-patient encounter are fundamental to the placebo effect.
Philanthropy, translated from Greek, means “love of humanity.”
Philanthropy can also be a kind of miracle drug.
Scientists and psychologists have found a very similar brain reaction when administering MRI to people contemplating giving away their money: would-be donors get a ‘feel good’ shot of dopamine.
It turns out the human brain is built for generosity.
Taking in something sweet – whether it be a sugar pill or a dose of ‘love of humanity’ philanthropy – makes us feel better.
That’s a good beginning. Thinking about, and doing, philanthropic acts makes people feel good.
But… doing it after a lot of hand holding and interactions with a practitioner (aka fundraiser) makes people feel even better!
When people feel better, they then act with greater generosity. Why?
Because the molecules flowing through their bloodstream spur them on. Just as adrenaline can spur folks to greater activity in response to a perceived threat or emergency.
There’s sweet. GOOD.
And then there’s extra sweet. BETTER.
For major gift fundraising, your main mantra should be: ‘The sweeter the better.’
And the more ritual and drama involved (i.e., handholding and interactions with a practitioner), the sweeter the effect.
Hmmn… does this remind you of anything?
The donor-fundraiser encounter is fundamental to the ‘philanthropic effect.’
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’ philanthropy.
Ritual and drama – donor centered moves management — has a lot to do with the eventual outcome.
Major gifts, capital campaign gifts and large legacy gifts are apt to come from folks with whom you have direct human interaction over a sustained period. They’re apt to come from folks to whom you’ve reached out and ‘touched’ multiple times.
Sure, you can call someone up and ask for a $1,000 gift. And you may get it. But, if you’d gone through a series of moves over the course of 12 – 18 months (e.g., inviting the donor to a tour, taking the donor out to coffee, sending the donor hand-picked articles that might be of interest, remembering the donor’s birthday, calling up to see how they were feeling when you heard they were ill, and meeting with them one or more times in person to discuss their philanthropic interests and ultimate gift), you’d likely have received a significantly larger gift.
It helps when the fundraiser comes from a place of love.
If you don’t really like interacting with people, you shouldn’t become a major gift fundraiser. Or any kind of front-line fundraiser. That may sound harsh, but trust me. There are other, better nonprofit development jobs for you. Direct mail. Online fundraising. Database work. Marketing communications. All of these are super-important functions. And major gift fundraising couldn’t happen without any of them.
But frontline major gift fundraisers must interact, one-to-one, with donors.
I’m saying this based on science: Kaptchuk found over many years the placebo effect is a “biological response to an act of caring; that somehow the encounter itself calls forth healing and that the more intense and focused it is, the more healing it evokes.”
Think of yourself as a caregiver, healer, lover and giver of sweets.
This is truly the essence of donor-centered major gift development. When you look at the Maslow Hierarchy of Human Motivation you see that after basic survival needs are met, people begin to look to fill other needs. Career. Family. Community. Creativity. Identity. Self-Actualization. There is a related Donor Hierarchy of Needs.
In non-psychological or theoretical terms, at the self-actualization pinnacle donors just feel darn good. They carry around a warm glow, representing the realization of their potential and inner peace.
Storytelling and rituals play an important role in making placebo and philanthropy work.
In reading about the research by Hall, Kaptchuk and others into the placebo effect I was struck by another parallel to effective fundraising.
They did a comparative study of conventional medicine, acupuncture and Navajo “chantway rituals,” in which healers lead storytelling ceremonies for the sick. Kaptchuk argued all three approaches unfold:
- In a space set aside for the purpose.
- Proceed as if according to a script.
- With prescribed roles for every participant.
Each modality, in other words, is its own kind of ritual, and Kaptchuk suggested that the ritual itself is part of what makes the procedure effective, as if the combined experiences of the healer and the patient, reinforced by the special-but-familiar surroundings, evoke a healing response that operates independently of the treatment’s specifics.
“Rituals trigger specific neurobiological pathways that specifically modulate bodily sensations, symptoms and emotions.”
— Ted Kaptchuk, Professor, Harvard Medical School
You must tell stories and build rituals into major gift fundraising in order to create a win/win for your cause and your donors.
Classic major gift fundraising practice recommends:
- Setting aside specific space for donor get-togethers, be they large group, small group or individual meetings.
- Engaging in a scripted series of touches and moves.
- Having prescribed roles for every participant (e.g., ambassador, advocate or asker).
Of course, the exact ‘course of treatment’ will be different with every prospective donor prospect. Even in the current placebo studies, researchers are finding “clinician warmth is especially effective with a certain genotype,” and the same can be said for donors. Some respond to more touches, some to less. You need to reach out, get to know your donor’s preferences, and then tailor their journey appropriately.
No one size fits all. Not in eastern medicine. Not in western medicine. Not in philanthropy.
Closing: think of major gift philanthropy facilitators as healers.
Major gift fundraising is about teaching the joy of giving. Never, ever, be fearful of asking for a major gift. Think of this (it comes from the placebo research, but I find it equally applicable to the philanthropy effect):
“the 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? Facilitate philanthropy.
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