Study: You Can’t Avoid A Sure Thing

December 8, 2014       Patrick Sullivan      

There’s a reason there’s no such thing as death insurance. It’s called life insurance. When faced with the prospect of their own mortality, most people’s first reaction is avoidance. Fundraisers talking to planned giving prospects face the same thing, since the event being planned for is the prospect’s death.

That’s what Dr. Russell James, a professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University, believes when it comes to fundraising. James shared research he conducted or collected on a webinar called “Words That Work: The Phrases That Encourage Planned Giving,” sponsored by Market Smart. Citing studies that used both surveys designed to tease out the most effective phrases for planned giving and neural imaging that mapped the brain’s reactions to planned giving conversations, James made the case that what you say is less important than how you say it.

“Philanthropy is a synthetic family,” said James. “It’s a social act using the mechanisms of family bonding.” Giving to charity stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone involved in maternal and romantic love. “We have direct evidence that oxytocin increases the willingness to engage,” said James.

Charitable giving also generates greater activation in brain reward centers when observers are present, said James. That’s because it’s a social act and it brings certain social validation.

“Family words — simple language and life stories — out-perform formal words, like technical, contract and market or exchange words,” said James. The litmus test is, you want to use the same words with your planned giving prospects that you would in a conversation with your grandmother.

“When I’m in a social frame of mind, it’s all about my identity: I help people because of who I am,” said James. “Those are norms that encourage giving. In a market or contract realm, I’m not in a giving frame of mind. I’m thinking about transactions and how to get an advantage.”

You need to play up the social aspect when talking about planned giving. Try to insert life stories. “Social examples influence charitable estate decisions because philanthropy is a social act,” said James. “Social norms can be quite powerful.”

Simply asking for a bequest got twice the number of commitments in a U.K. study of 3,000 people that James referenced. When a line saying “Many of our customers like to leave money to charity. Are there any causes you’re passionate about” was inserted, playing on the fact that others leave money to charity in their wills, the response was triple that of those who were not asked.

James asked 4,000 people about their interest in giving a gift now versus leaving a bequest. The gap between those interested in giving now compared to giving in their wills was 10.2 percent. Inserting a story about people who left bequests to charity cut that gap to 6.7 percent. When the story was about someone still living who included a charity in their will, the gap dropped to 4.4 percent. The social norm approach also doubled the amount of money people were leaving, said James.

The biggest mistake a fundraiser can make, according to James’ research, is to use the names of planned giving vehicles such as “bequest” and “charitable remainder trust.” Again, these terms put the listener in a contract frame of mind, which is not conducive to giving.

In a study describing planned giving language as “make a gift” or “make a transfer of charitable assets,” there was almost double the number of people expressing interest when the gift language was used as opposed to the asset language. Similar results came from gift versus bequest and gift versus charitable gift annuity.

“I feel you need to learn these terms but we don’t want to start out conversations with these terms,” said James. “Keep in mind these are initial responses. In starting conversations, be careful with throwing these out there.”

Make sure to highlight the personal benefits such as tax breaks a planned giving prospect can get. You’ll have to be cagey with this, however. “If we remember that philanthropy is a social act, you have to worry about social desirability bias,” said James. People will rarely self-report these motivations because “giving is a social act and personal motivation destroys the social nature,” according to James.

“It’s a good idea to note the benefits, but don’t identify personal benefits as the motivation,” James continued. “This is something that’s motivating for other people, not you. People join a legacy society to influence others to make the same commitment, not because everyone will know how generous they are.”