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Donor Participation Project Resources

The Neuroscience of Fundraising: Images, Empathy and Giving

Fundraising is an emotional process, not just a logical one.

Donors give because they feel something.

Neuroimaging research shows that donating activates the social emotional parts of the brain, the areas involved in empathy, social bonding, and reward.

Effective fundraising storytelling taps into these social emotions. Stories need visual details and compelling characters to evoke emotion. Vague or complicated stories fail to create mental images, so donors feel nothing.

Simplicity is key.

While the issues nonprofits address can be complex, fundraising stories must be simple. Focus on one character or group to identify with, not many. Adding too many names, details and subplots muddies the story and alienates donors.

Emotion-evoking stories also need empathy.

Details only help if donors care about the character.

For example, in studies people donated more to help one sick child named “Chase” versus five children without names.

But empathy depends on the character. Details increased donations for a needy gifted child but not when the child wasn’t in need.

Nonprofits often focus on statistics but numbers alone don’t motivate giving. Stories do.

That said, visual images do matter—events in nice settings encourage bigger gifts than frugal ones.

Surveys and conversations can also elicit donor stories and connections to your mission. Major donors gave after including charities in estate plans, likely because this “donating wealth” mindset stuck. Ask how donors first got involved or what they’d change if money were no object. Their answers reveal values and victories to build stories around. In the end, people give to people and nonprofits they identify with.

Stories that evoke mental images and emotion create this identification.

While there’s an art to storytelling, understanding its neuroscience and social impact can guide more effective, empathetic fundraising stories.

Compelling tales of overcoming challenges and achieving meaningful victories will move donors to act and forge lasting relationships with your cause.

View the complete recording of this Donor Participation Project session with Dr. Russell James in our Resource Library.

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