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The psychology of giving – and how fundraisers can learn from it

Creating that ‘warm glow’ could help you raise more

David Linden

Neuroscientist and author

Woman looking at the camera with hands and arms outstretched

Giving money to charity is traditionally seen as a selfless act, but that’s not necessarily the case. Several studies have shown that acts of kindness make us feel happy, and the warm glow that seems to come from giving helps our sense of wellbeing.

Neuroscientist David J Linden, author of the new book 'Think Tank: Forty Neuroscientists Explore the Biological Roots of Human Experience', thinks that it's perfectly healthy to bask in the warmth of your own generosity – and that charities should think more about how to trigger people’s 'pleasure circuits'.

Here he shares his thoughts on how tapping in to the brain’s reward system can help fundraisers raise even more money for their charity.

Why is pleasure such an important way to motivate people?

All mammals have what is called a ‘pleasure circuit’, which rewards us for carrying out essential behaviours. So they eat food and drink water to survive, and they have sexual intercourse to get their genes into the next generation.

Since the pleasure circuit is interconnected with many other areas of the brain, our reward circuitry can be activated by things that have nothing to do with survival, such as reading celebrity gossip. Or, if you have a particular set of beliefs, you can activate your reward circuitry by fasting rather than eating, or abstaining from sex rather than having sex. You can also artificially activate your reward circuit with things like alcohol or drugs. Likewise, this reward circuit can be triggered by giving to charity.

What makes people give to charity?

Neuroscientists have different ideas about what motivates generosity. One idea is that people are generous because they want to be regarded positively by others. And for some that is definitely true. If we were to put a person in a brain-scanning machine and praise them by saying how much they help their neighbours or give money to a food bank, chances are that you’d see the reward circuitry parts of that person’s brain light up.

Is public recognition the only reason people are charitable?

No. There’s a theory that we're actually hard-wired to give, that our pleasure circuits give us a warm glow for giving. There have been studies that show that even an anonymous act of giving will have people feel rewarded.

Although not everyone feels reward from giving – there are people who don't and we really don't know why that is. There's nothing I can point to biologically that shows a predictor of someone who is going to want to give or a predictor of someone who isn't.

What can fundraisers do to encourage people to give?

People in all kinds of situations, whether it is giving or gambling or anything, love to feel like they have the power to make decisions that will have an impact. So make it clear that giving is the donor’s choice and also show the difference their choice will make. Telling people they are helping a particular child, or sponsoring this family, or are helping this woman in this country have the seed money for her business… People enjoy knowing where their money goes.

Do people only like to give to causes close to their heart?

There was an interesting brain-imaging study that showed that people are more likely to give when they feel the recipients share something with them, whether that is living in the same community or being like them genetically or socially. People are still very tribal. These days tribes aren’t just based on race and religion; your tribe is your community, your football team, your family situation, what pet you have, where you hang out online or your politics.

Any final tips for fundraisers?

If somebody has helped you, thank them publicly and reward that social positivity part of the brain. Sometimes people have these ideas – which can be found in both the Christian tradition and Buddhism – that to be truly altruistic you shouldn’t catch a pleasure buzz off your good deeds. I think that's nonsense.

I would say, go ahead and give and bask in the adulation of your friends. And for those trying to encourage giving, don't be stingy about those people who want to be recognised. Our brains are hard-wired to take pleasure from pro-social choices and fighting against that is just fighting against something that's essential to our humanity.

If you’re looking for more fundraising support, you may be interested in our article Your top ten fundraising tips.

Have you gone the extra mile to inspire more people to donate? We’d love to hear your story and top fundraising tips on Facebook and Twitter.

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