In today’s technological age, I believe it is very easy to get caught up in the over analysis of the reasons people give. In recent decades there has been significant research and writings on what motivates donors to do what they do and why.
Elizabeth Svoboda’s August 2013 Wall Street Journal article, “Hard-Wired for Giving,” shows some scientific evidence behind giving. She reports that experiments in 2007 by University of Oregon economist Dr. Bill Harbaugh and psychologist Ulrich Mayr used an MRI scanner to pinpoint exactly what goes on in a person’s brain when they decide to give to charity. Results showed that “areas of the brain associated with the processing of unexpected rewards, such as the nucleus accumbens lit up. The nucleus accumbens contains the neurons that release the pleasure chemical dopamine.”
The WSJ article goes on to say that Dr. Harbaugh in general found, “the greater the pleasurable brain activation, the more likely subjects were to give frequently. You can actually measure how much activation there is and predict with some degree of accuracy how much they’re going to give,” Dr. Harbaugh says.
I’m not advocating for every donor to have a brain scan before they visit a nonprofit organization or walk into their professional advisors office for a meeting, but the results are fascinating.
In some ways the advanced diagnostic tools and MRI techniques might very well correlate with the qualitative work of Russ Alan Prince and Karen Maru File. In 1994, they first shed light on donor behavior by identifying and categorizing seven personalities types of major donors in their book The Seven Faces of Philanthropy. The seven personality types are: Communitarian, Socialites, Investor, Dynasts, Altruists, Devout and Repayers. For many fundraisers, Prince’s and File’s observations and research still serve as the foundation for donor cultivation and communication.
But perhaps in very significant ways, at least for me, the current work of the scientific professionals discounts the importance that feelings of the heart have in the making of philanthropic decisions. Might this be the right time to revisit, revive, and reinstate the value of some very basic unique American philanthropic virtues? These virtues were observed and first identified by De Tocqueville in his 1835 book Democracy in America, as “self-interest rightly understood… how enlightened love of themselves made them ready and willing to sacrifice a portion of their time and wealth for the good of the state.”
Let’s find a balance between the quantitative and qualitative aspects of why donors give and keep the heart beating strong for the spirit of America’s philanthropy.