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Inside your donor’s brain

publication date: Nov 19, 2012
author/source: Natasha van Bentum
Russell James, Director of Graduate Studies in Charitable Planning at Texas Tech University, recently conducted research on what motivates individuals to leave a legacy as well as what "de-motivates" them. Thanks to Texas Tech's Neuroimaging Institute, he's able to use a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) to examine charitable bequest decision making, the first time such insights have been available in the charitable giving field.Natasha van Bentum photo

A study subject lies in the machine while being asked a series of questions. Computers then illustrate which area of the brain is activated during particular lines of questioning. By working with such innovative technology, Russell hopes to learn more about what is involved in making giving decisions. Here's what he says about his research: 

The main areas where I do research are generosity and financial decision-making having to do with charitable giving.  I'm also interested in how a person perceives satisfaction with regard to their own financial circumstances. When you look at charitable giving as a whole, about 85% engage in charitable giving, and less than 5% engage in charitable estate planning. If it is out of fear, because we're talking about a person's death or what is different about that decision, then maybe we could understand those barriers and address them. 

Key findings   

Here are five key findings from the study as reported by Michael Rosen of Donor Centered Planned Gift Marketing in his blog post of February 2012:
  1. Bequest giving and current giving stimulate different parts of the brain.
  2. This suggests that different motivators and de-motivators are at work.
  3. Making a charitable bequest decision involves the internal visualization system, specifically those parts of the brain engaged for recalling autobiographical events, including the recent death of a loved one.
  4. Charitable bequest decision-making engages parts of the brain associated with what researchers call "management of death salience."
  5. In other words, and not surprisingly, charitable bequest decision making involves reminders of one's mortality.
What can we learn from this study? 

I find the reference to "autobiographical connections" to be the most compelling point. It all boils down to storytelling.  As we know, it's not the tax advantages or technical gift illustration charts that make a difference in encouraging donors to take action. 

Russell gives excellent advice (not unlike what our grandmothers would have told us). "Start conversations by working to trigger autobiographical memories associated with the charity, or the cause the charity represents. The goal is to lay out for the donor how a bequest gift to the organization fits neatly into their autobiography." 

Other research suggests that that it's not just the story of the charity that's key, but the inter-relationship between the individual's own story and the charity. 

This edited article is taken from a more extensive commentary by Natasha van Bentum, Legacies and fMRI's - What goes on in the mind of a donor, published in the October 2012 issue of Gift Planning in Canada. Subscribe or download a sample copy.   

Natasha van Bentum is one of the earliest members of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners and has served on various Leave a Legacy committees for many years in Canada and the USA.  She is Director of G2 - Give Green Canada (Patrimoine vert), a project housed at Tides Canada.    

Contact her,, or on Skype at natashavictoria. Natasha's Twitter feed provides regular updates on legacies and outreach @GiveGreenCanada.

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