What Makes Donors Give? The Science Behind the “Yes!”

Today I’m excited to share some new research that developed from a partnership between Stelter and Giving Docs (who work with Dan Ariely’s Center for Advanced Hindsight). Together, we have documented scientifically backed insights to motivate donors to make planned gifts and—even more important—to increase donor satisfaction.

The following is a synopsis of one of the six key ideas in our shared whitepaper with Giving Docs.

What Makes a Donor Give?

It is important to understand how donors think. This provides valuable guidance to how planned giving officers approach and steward relationships with their donors. When we add behavioral science principles to those communications, we can leverage the natural impulses and reactions every human being has, and improve the experience of legacy giving.

We aim to compel the donor to commit to a legacy gift—enhancing the donor experience and facilitating long-term stewardship of the relationship.

Tap Into Yes! Emotions

Behavioral science researchers like those at the Center for Advanced Hindsight have explored a range of topics such as what makes us purchase a particular type of jam to whether we decide to be an organ donor. A key insight reveals that our emotions can be divided into three states: Yes!, No! and Unengaged. These emotional states have a significant impact on how we make decisions.

At a high level, our emotions drive us to:

  • Keep doing something (known as a “Yes! emotional state”)
  • Stop doing something (known as a “No! emotional state”)

When our emotions are not activated, we are Unengaged—in a nonemotional, rational state.

While you might assume that we make our best decisions in a nonemotional state, this isn’t necessarily true. We are emotional beings seeking emotional satisfaction, and the “best decision” is not always defined by what is most sensible. Instead, it may be defined by what delivers the highest emotional reward or what is most beneficial for the world.

“Best” is subjective. The scrooge in your family might insist that keeping all your money for yourself is the “best” way to live while a philanthropist will argue that giving brings the most happiness. (Psychologists tend to support the latter view, assuming basic needs have been met.)

How Yes! Emotions And No! Emotions Affect Decisions

Yes! emotions make us want to keep going. They include pleasure, laughter, anticipation and nostalgia. They are the emotions that make us long for something or make us glad or grateful.

No! emotions are painful, and they make us do whatever we can to make those feelings go away. They include disgust, fear, boredom, shame and anger.

Researchers have found that Yes! emotions increase our willingness to buy something, to invest or to pursue an opportunity. When feeling Yes! emotions, we are more likely to be the first person to say “I love you” or to decide to give to a charity.

Conversely, No! emotions cause us to shut down before we can even consider if the opportunity is a good or bad one. A No! emotion might cause you to decline an invitation to a party.

Want more? Listen to Dan Ariely’s TED talk about how much our everyday decisions are influenced by emotions.

Yes! Emotions and Planned Giving

Ultimately, we want to believe that we can and have made a difference, and that the world is a better place because we were in it.

Wanting to leave a legacy is an emotional desire that can serve as a satisfying final chapter. When a nonprofit facilitates this decision in an emotionally supportive way, the experience can be much more satisfying to the donor.

Throughout the process, from initial outreach to stewardship, feed donors a constant diet of Yes! emotions. These emotions can be nurtured by messaging that reinforces the following:

  • The need is real and ongoing, and real people need your support.
  • Your gift will make a difference and is appreciated by actual people. Real people are already benefiting from our organization’s support, and you can be part of that.
  • By giving in this manner, you are an exceptional person who has made a respectable choice to invest in purposeful living.

Avoid the No!

If a donor begins to feel that their gift is unimportant, unappreciated or not impactful, they may grow discouraged and decide their money is more appreciated and needed elsewhere.

Nonprofits will produce No! emotions if they do the following:

  • Neglect to acknowledge a gift.
  • Provide sterile, unemotional responses.
  • Report only dry facts and statistics.
  • Make donors feel like their gift was inconsequential and they will continually be asked to do more.

So, What Should You Do?

Provide an emotional payoff that is both satisfying and lasting. Achieve this by:

  1. Finding emotionally accessible examples of the important needs your organization meets. Do you feed the hungry? House the homeless? What good does your organization do, and for what people or tangible causes?
  2. Telling emotionally rich stories about the work of your organization. When a donor leaves a legacy gift, tie that choice to an emotionally fulfilling story. For example, a legacy gift might be used to provide clean water to a village in Africa.
  3. Triggering Yes! emotions such as happiness, purposefulness, nostalgia and importance through positive stories, celebrations of wins and expressions of gratitude when donors take action.

Get all the insights by downloading the FREE whitepaper.

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