How To and Why You Should Love Your Donors (the Philanthropy Psychology Way)

Philanthropic psychology is a new concept and field of study—so if you haven’t heard of it—you aren’t alone. The topic piqued my interest a few years back as I began hearing about it more and more. I connected with Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang from the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy, two experts (and pioneers in the field) to better understand how this “Phil Psych” way of approaching philanthropy could work with what we already know from decades of research.

I was so impressed that we decided to hire Jen Shang to teach our creative staff the concepts behind the psychology. For five weeks (culminating in a week of intensive in-person training with Jen) they were immersed in the science of Phil Psych and strategized how to successfully bring the ideas to life in our planned giving marketing programs for our clients.

The impact the course had on our teams was immeasurable. They walked away truly inspired and with the belief that by putting these concepts into action, we can help fulfill donors’ psychological needs, making a real difference in their lives, and in turn, increasing giving, helping to make a difference in the world.

Phil Psych 101

So just what is Phil Psych anyway? Good question.

The word “philanthropy” comes from the Greek words “philos” meaning “love,” and “anthropos,” meaning “man,” or “humanity.”

  • Philanthropy = Love of humankind

The word “psychology” is derived from the Greek words “psyche,” meaning the mind, soul or spirit, and “logos,” meaning discourse or to study.

  • Psychology = Study of psyche/soul

Put the two words together and we get Philanthropic Psychology: The study of how people love humankind/people.

Phil Psych encourages us to do thoughtful fundraising that “grows deep love.” Shang defines deep love as “the kind of love that connects and comforts.”

She goes on to say:

“…it takes us to genuinely connecting [sic] with the people that we’re going to raise money from because…we’re not presenting the raising of money as an action to them, we’re presenting it as an opportunity for them to connect and comfort.”

3 Phil Psych Concepts

Shang teaches three key concepts in Phil Psych: love, identity and psychological well-being.

Love and Identity in Practice

In our messaging, we asked: Do we thank the donor for who they are as a person (kind, generous), or are we simply thanking them for their action (making a gift)? Do we (the organization) take credit for the results, or do we invite the donor into the “we?”

To show and amplify donor love, we need to appreciate the person, their spirit and the values driving their philanthropy, not just the gift/support itself. Here’s an example of what Shang means:

Original copy:

We supported Jessica and her parents through those difficult first days—and put them in touch with other families like theirs, so they could look to the future with confidence and hope.

Your ongoing support makes all the difference.

Phil Psych’ed copy:

Kind supporters like you helped Jessica and her parents through those difficult first days—and put them in touch with other families like theirs, so they could look to the future with confidence and hope.

Your kind and generous ongoing support makes all the difference.

Psychological Well-Being in Practice

Additionally, there are three basic human needs for psychological well-being. For each, we asked: How does this apply to what we do for our clients? How can it impact the copy we write, the imagery we create?

1. The need to feel autonomous.
Are we highlighting donors’ unique circumstances and their ability to choose what works best for themselves?

2. The need to feel competent.
Are we encouraging and recognizing a donor’s desire to feel in control of their actions?

3. The need to feel connected to others.
Are we using peer-to-peer language, or are we talking down to donors? Do we help them feel they are an important part of our whole, bringing them closer to our “we”?

When it comes down to it, Phil Psych teaches that if fundraising is just about asking, taking, transactional in nature, without filling the pool—it will run out. Love is a renewable resource and can sustain philanthropy.

More Phil Psych, Please!

Obviously, I’ve just barely scratched the surface of Phil Psych here. If you’d like to learn more, the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy offers a handful of courses.

Shang also did a webinar for us on the topic where she took attendees through real-world examples demonstrating how philanthropic psychology can be applied and how it has achieved sustainable increases in giving. You can view the recording here.

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