Graphic: Arrow Join Now! Graphic: Arrow MY AFP Profile Graphic: Arrow AFP Canada Graphic: Arrow AFP Mexico Graphic: Star MAKE A GIFT


AFP International Conference Education Session Sneak Peak: Journey Deeper Inside the Donor’s Brain

Resource Center - Foundation

Leah Eustace, CFRE, MPhil, has over 20 years of fundraising experience and has long been interested in the philanthropic traditions of diverse communities. Scott Fortnum, ACFRE, MA, has been an instructor at a number of colleges and universities in Canada and the U.S., and is currently the executive director of The Living City Foundation. Together they bring you the sequel to their 2013 AFP International Conference session and dive even deeper inside the donor’s brain!

scott and leahHuman brains are amazing and complex things, and we still have a lot to learn about them, particularly in the area of decision-making. Over the past number of years, we’ve made some progress, and much of the research in this area offers fundraisers and nonprofit leaders insight into how to attract, engage and retain donors.

Donors are individuals, and naturally each individual has his or her own set of values, filters, life experiences and decision-making processes. At the 2013 AFP International Conference on Fundraising, we lead session attendees through a Journey Inside the Donor’s Brain where we explored some of the science and research surrounding how people think and reach decisions.

Attendees learned why stories work and are incredibly powerful in delivering our messages and sharing our missions. They also gained an understanding of readability, legibility and the six elements of persuasion.

Journey Deeper Inside the Donor’s Brain is the title of our 2014 AFP International Conference session—it will delve further into our donors’ thought processes, while also introducing new research that’s come out within the past year.

The Principles of Persuasion

Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion provided us with six principles of persuasion—adapted for the charitable sector below:

  • Reciprocity: We can use the persuasive technique of reciprocity by providing the opportunity to give back to something that has benefited the donors. Grateful patient and alumni programs are great examples.
  • Consistency: There is a desire to be consistent with what we have said or done. We must keep this in mind in our efforts to retain donors and remind them of and continually thank them for their past support.
  • Consensus: This is what we often call the band wagon effect in a major campaign. Donors want to support successful campaigns that they see others supporting.
  • Authority: Also known as the desire to follow the experts or respected leaders, this is a consideration we need to take into account when recruiting our board—determining who will sign our appeal and who will make a solicitation.
  • Similarity: People tend to like people who like them, and typically those are folks who have some similarity. In major gift work we understand how much more successful a peer-to-peer solicitation can be, but it’s also true in other areas. If a listener can see or hear themselves in a speaker, they will be more receptive to the message. Keep this in mind, in particular, when fundraising for planned gifts.
  • Scarcity: This, also known as exclusivity, can be a real motivator for many folks. This is why President’s Circles or similar giving clubs work so well for many organizations. While rarely the only factor, it can often be the little push that people need to move their giving up a level.

Understanding these principles of persuasion is important, but there are other factors at play as well. Research has been done that has led to the creation of a couple of models, which while different in their focus, share a number of commonalities.

Research to Back-up The Donor Brain

The Elaboration Likelihood model, developed by Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo 30 years ago in a marketing context, has significant applicability with regard to fundraising. Understanding “central” versus “peripheral” route processing can provide some real insight into how donors make decisions. Are they the factual types who require significant information and detail (Central), or are they more likely to make decisions based on what others do or suggest or how they feel (Peripheral)? If we as fundraisers can better understand that the charitable giving decision is complex, we will be able to properly blend central and peripheral decision triggers.

We can do this in a number of ways, many of which are demonstrated in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Using language and descriptions, we are able to prime our listeners or readers in a way that helps us lead them to a desired conclusion. If we can understand the way our brain works and the concept of priming, then we can modify behavior. Specifically, we can help to lead donors to a positive giving decision.

The other interesting element that we should all be aware of is that happiness is an emotion that affects our whole body. Even more so than love, when one looks at the Body Map of Emotion study by Lauri Nummenmaa et al., we see that being happy makes us “feel good all over.” Although we likely know this intuitively, are we keeping this in mind with our donor relationships?

donor brain image

For many newer fundraisers, it’s often a tremendous insight to realize that giving, especially transformational gifts, can really bring joy to the donor. Many times we’ve heard donors speak at conferences about how great they felt to be able to support a particular project. Research done by Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia has gone on to prove that giving makes people happy. So, if giving can really make people happy, and being happy makes us “feel good all over,” we’re clearly in a win-win situation.

Knowledge is strength. If we as fundraising professionals can better understand what and how our donors think, and we use this knowledge to better develop our messages, it is reasonable to assume that we will be more successful and raise more money by having a better, more rewarding relationship with our donors.

Our organizations’ missions are important and relevant—at least they should be—and it is the revenue that we raise through the investment of our donors that better allows the mission to be filled. Let’s be focused, thoughtful, and direct in our dealings with our donor prospects. Let’s understand how they might be viewing us and our request, and find a way to ensure that we can help bring more happiness to their lives.

You can catch Scott Fortnum, ACFRE, MA, and Leah Eustace, CFRE, MPhil, at the 2014 AFP International Conference on Fundraising in San Antonio on Monday, March 24. For more information about their session, please visit Get involved in the discussion surrounding this session on social media using #AFPBrains! 

4300 Wilson Blvd, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22203 • 703-684-0410 | 800-666-3863 | Fax: 703-684-0540
©2009 AFP. This site content may not be copied, reproduced or redistributed without prior written
permission from the Association of Fundraising Professionals or its affiliates.
Privacy Policy | Feedback | Contact Us | Advertise with Us