Aroma, Touch and Words All Boosted Giving

October 21, 2014       Patrick Sullivan      

Russell James, III, Ph.D., is not advocating gathering your donors into a room where the air is filled with the hormone oxytocin. He’s just saying that an experiment involving dosing donors with a nasal spray of oxytocin led them to give more. It’s up to you whether you want to tamper with the ventilation system at your next special event.

James, a professor of personal financial planning and Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, presented some of the latest findings on the science of giving during the Association of Fundraising Professionals 2014 International Conference on Fundraising in San Antonio, Texas earlier this year.

“Charitable giving is rewarding, activating the reward centers in the brain like when people receive gifts,” said James. “But (giving) is also uniquely involved in the oxytocin-rich social attachment brain reaches. This hormone is used in maternal and romantic love.” Charitable giving, said James, creates a “synthetic family” bond between the donor and the beneficiary organization. “Charitable giving is a social act that can take the place or use the same mechanisms as the extended family,” he said.

Another experiment used human touch to stimulate oxytocin, followed by a small gift. This too increased charitable giving. “It is no shock that shaking someone’s hand and giving them a premium might be related to a positive outcome in charitable giving,” said James. “What’s new is understanding the increase in this family bonding hormone.”

The interplay of oxytocin and giving means that fundraisers should be focused on what James calls social norms, as opposed to market norms. Donors give from emotion, not because a particular transaction could be advantageous to them or to someone else. “If you’re using family language with a synthetic activity, that fits,” he said.

James cited a study on giving language with 1,000 respondents. Half got the phrase “make a gift” in an informational document about a charitable gift annuity. The other half got the phrase “enter into a contract.” The group with the gift phrase responded with a gift at 29 percent, while only 13 percent of the contract group made a gift. In another study, half of the respondents got the “make a gift” phrase in relation to a charitable remainder trust, and the other half received “make a transfer of assets.” The results were similar: 27 percent for gift, and 14 percent for assets.

“There are massive differences between family language and market language,” said James.