Philanthropy as Family: Words that Work Part 1

Posted by National Association of Charitable Gift Planners on Mar 11, 2015 2:58:43 PM

[Editor’s Note: Nonprofit researcher and former Giving USA editor Melissa Brown attended recent meetings of the Association of Philanthropic Counsel and the Science of Philanthropy Initiative. We asked her to translate research into practice for PPP members, and it’s no surprise that some of the most practical research findings came from Russell James.]

In surveys and experiments, Russell presents people with  a series of possibilities and then examines their likelihood of giving to charity. Two of his findings are especially practical for fundraisers.

Avoid technical language.  Write or speak as you would when communicating with your grandmother. For example, people more often indicate willingness to “make a gift to charity in a will” than to “make a charitable bequest” or “transfer assets to a charity” in an otherwise identical scenario.

elderly woman

Evoke family memories.  People were more willing to make a gift to honor a loved one after a chance to reflect about an individual they know who is or was connected to a cause, as shown in scans in fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

Why do these work? At one level, people have the capacity to feel about a charity some of what they feel for family members, quite literally. The act of giving a charitable gift releases oxytocin, the so-called “bonding hormone” that is also associated with having a child, being in love, or with caring behavior within a family life.

At another level, people realize that they do benefit directly (possibly a tax deduction) and indirectly (feeling good about doing the right thing) through charitable gifts. Our requests can combine those and be effective.

Russell’s work suggests that reminding people of a loved one’s connection to the charity “stacks” the feeling of family with the feeling of charitable giving. This additive effect might result in more charitable bequests and possibly at higher amounts.

In surveys, more people indicated an interest in making a bequest gift when asked if they would like to “Honor a family member by making a tribute gift to charity in my will.” This question is about two things: honoring a family member and making a memorial gift.  The phrase in bold was tested under a variety of conditions; using it increased the share of those who indicated they were "interested now" in making such a gift from 23% to 32%, when compared with other possibilities.

Perhaps because charitable giving is a social act, donors do not admit in surveys to being motivated by tax benefits (or any other personal benefit). Yet research continues to show that gifts increase when donors can lower tax payments or when they receive an incentive (such as a matching gift or premium or other reward). This is true for planned gifts, as well.

Russell finds large increases in the number of people who express interest when asked if they would like to: “Receive a tax deduction and make a gift that pays you income for life,” compared with even the flip of that, “Make a gift that pays you an income for life and receive a tax deduction.” He advises that we be upfront about the tax benefits, as many in gift planning have averred for decades.

A future post will show that experimental findings are confirmed in real world situations.

Check out Part 2 here


MSBMelissa Brown is an independent researcher in the nonprofit sector and the director of the Nonprofit Research Collaborative, which includes PPP among its partners. She has authored or edited 10 editions of Giving USA (a publication of Giving USA Foundation, numerous published articles, a handful of scholarly papers, and a training manual for TheFund Raising School. While working at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University Melissa studied regional differences in giving, variations in gender and generational values and actions in giving and volunteering, and trends in fundraising results in nonprofit organizations.

Melissa began working in the nonprofit sector in 1989 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. She has worked for the Homeless Initiative Program,Indiana University, and the national office of the Arthritis Foundation. She teaches successful proposal writing for The Fund Raising School. Her volunteer roles have included Big Sisters of Central Indiana and the International School of Indiana.

She holds a B.A. in political science from Reed College and a Master's degree in governmental administration from the University of Pennsylvania.


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Topics: philanthropy, donors, fundraising, planned giving, General, Research