Your donor’s brain on chemicals – and stories

publication date: May 7, 2013
author/source: Janet Gadeski

When we run a successful fundraising campaign, science seems to show that we succeed by altering the actual chemical levels in our donors’ brains. Fortunately, that chemical rebalancing is not hard to do: you just have to create an emotionally compelling story. More on that in a moment – let’s begin with a basic lesson on brain chemistry.

Hormones drive stress, empathy

Two chemicals that flood through our brains in response to specific kinds of stimuli end up swaying our behaviour. Cortisol is often called the “fight or flight hormone.” Throughout human history, it’s focused our attention on things that are distressing, and often threatening (wild animals, an angry boss), thereby contributing to our personal survival.

Oxytocin, on the other hand, stimulates care, empathy and a sense of connection – qualities needed for tribal survival. When both hormones are running, people are more likely to give. That’s the conclusion of Paul Zak, a researcher who showed people a father’s story about the terminal cancer of his two-year-old son Ben.

Zak found that the more cortisol and oxytocin the study participants produced, the more likely they were to share their participation honorarium with a stranger or to donate part of it to a children’s charity. Even better, those with the highest blood levels of the two hormones gave most generously.

How to change your donors’ brain chemistry

If a chemical brew of cortisol and oxytocin works to increase giving, how can we bathe our donors with those hormones, especially from a distance?

Intranasal infusion works, but it’s not practical (and raises ethical concerns). Positive human interactions evoking, gratitude or appreciation will do it. So will making music with other people, stroking pets, forgiving others and meditating – none of which are on hand for distribution via direct mail in most charities.

But there is one absolutely reliable, universally available pathway to your donor’s brain. Tell an engaging story that follows what German playwright Gustav Freytag called a “dramatic arc.” Make sure your story has an exposition – describe the characters and the situation they face. Add action that rises to a climax and then falls to a denouement.

No emotional buildup, no donation

In the example of Ben’s story, the father introduces himself, talks about Ben and his diagnosis, and builds to the tension of playing with Ben during one of his healthy, happy periods, all while knowing something that Ben doesn’t – that Ben will die within a few months. He slows the action by describing how that feels, then ends with his determination to enjoy every moment he can with his son. That story, as noted earlier, motivated the participants to share with a stranger or with a charity.

By contrast, other participants who only heard a story about Ben and his father at the zoo, with no mention of the cancer and no specific direction to the story, showed no brain response whatever – and no tendency to be generous afterwards.

“Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry,” Zak explains. So tell your donors a compelling story. You’ll find tips for doing that here.

This article is drawn from a presentation to the Southeastern Ontario chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals by Ken Wyman, professor and coordinator currently on a research sabbatical (returning Aug. 2013) from the Fundraising Management graduate program at Humber College in Toronto. He is particularly interested in the work of neuroscientists, psychologists and other scientists who want to figure out why, when and how people are moved to be generous. 

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