Inside The Donor’s Brain

July 2, 2013       Patrick Sullivan      

Donors make decisions based on emotion and justify their decisions with logic. Leah Eustace and Scott Fortnum gave attendees at the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) international conference a guided tour of the donor’s brain.

“You need to lead with emotion in fundraising,” said Eustace, principal and managing partner at Good Works in Ottawa, Ontario. “It’s far too easy to get caught up in statistics and institutional logical stuff.”

Eustace and Fortnum, executive director of The Living City Foundation in Toronto, talked about a phenomenon they called “The Power of One.” A University of Oregon researcher performed a study of three groups reading fundraising appeals. One group read an appeal about hunger in Africa. The second group’s appeal was the story of a 17-year-old girl in Mali, and third had the story of the girl along with statistics about hunger in Mali.

The story of the girl by itself got the strongest reaction, according to Fortnum and Eustace. “When we’re trying to develop a communication piece, what pressure are we under?” asked Fortnum. “We want to report stats, people served, and demonstrate impact. (But) there is data out there that backs up the point that when you’re working with a board or your boss, you’ve got something to back up why you want to tell a story about one person. If you can’t tell the story of one, tell the story about one at a time.”

Fortnum pointed out that a good story evokes a physical, chemical reaction in the brain. He mentioned research that studied the chemical responses in the body upon hearing the story of a two-year-old with cancer. The research found that the body produces cortisol and oxytocin, “elements of distress and empathy,” he sad. “That allows us the opportunity and gives us the understanding that these stories are very powerful because they are eliciting a response far beyond logic. It’s the emotional elements of a story that we remember.”

Fundraising appeals should be written with the science of persuasion in mind. The principle of reciprocity often applies: a donor benefitted from the organization, and therefore wants someone else to benefit. Donors also respond to scarcity, so if it applies, use language such as “limited time only.”

Donors are looking for organizations with credible leadership, which speaks to authority. Consistency, too, is key; McDonalds is popular all over the world because diners know what they’re going to get, whether they’re in New York City or New South Wales. And, capital campaigns employ the principle of critical mass. Their quiet phases are long, so by the time the campaign goes public, donors see that many other people have donated and want to be part of the crowd.

Eustace said not to discount the effects of aging on the brain. As you age, she said, citing a book called “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain” by Barbara Strauch, you become more right-brained. You have more empathy and you respond to things more emotionally. “That’s relevant to us as fundraising, leaders and mangers,” she said. “In terms of donors, their brains are aging too.”

As our brains change as we age, so too do our eyes. For that reason, it’s important to make your communications readable to older donors. Black text on a colored background makes the text harder to read, said Eustace. She also said that older eyes have more trouble differentiating between blue and green than red and yellow. Offline, print is easier to read if it’s in a serif font, but online, sans serif is easier to read. “If we design things for older eyes, it helps younger eyes too,” said Fortnum.

Though donors tend to be older, you should still be writing at a sixth-grade level or below. “We need to understand that we can deal with very intelligent people, but we still need to keep communications at a level appropriate to what we’re trying to say,” said Fortnum. Eustace and Fortnum described an option in Microsoft Word called readability statistics that can tell you to what grade level you are writing when you run the spell checker. “If all you do is change longer words to three and four character words or split them, the score will go down,” said Eustace.

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