Cognitive Science and the Art of the Ask

Wendy Bolm 09/14/2015
Cognitive Science and the Art of the Ask
At a recent gathering of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in New Orleans, Dr. Russell James, a leading researcher in the effects of philanthropy on the brain, presented some of his findings on how language can impact planned giving. Though his presentation was narrow in focus, his findings can be easily be applied to all forms of nonprofit messaging and "asks." Here are five steps nonprofits can take now to improve donor outreach from Dr. James's PowerPoint presentation "Words that Work: The Phrases that Encourage Planned Giving."

1. Use simple, warm language.

Dr. James calls this "family language" because, in his studies, he found that philanthropic giving is a "social act using the mechanisms of family bonding" that produces oxytocin, which is what gives individuals a feel-good reaction to supporting a cause. 

Use words like "gift" instead of "donation" or "fund," which Dr. James terms "market language." Don't address donors like you would other nonprofit professionals, address them like you would members of your family, with warmth and consideration, not buzzwords. 

2. Create an environment where supporters can be seen giving. 

When supporters feel like they are being watched, they are more likely to give, and give more. This is why crowdfunding is so successful. At CommitChange, we've found that our most successful campaigns utilize both social media (with focused hashtags) and our Recent Activity feed. Dr. James's research shows that supporters donate more when they're observed than when they're anonymous, further cementing giving as a social act. 

This is also why physical events like galas where nonprofits accept pledges are so successful; having so many supporters in one room increases donation potential. 

3. Mentioning tax deductions and other benefits of charitable giving increases donations.

According to Dr. James's research, people don't like admitting that this is the case, but his experiments with modifying the verbage about the tangible benefits an indvidual will receive after a donation prove mentioning the rewards make a big difference. 

4. Make your messaging about your donors. 

Appeals often include pictures and names of staff, board members, or beneficiaries of an organization. However, Dr. James talked about studies revolving around an ad campaign and internal messaging that included the information about and motivations of individuals who supported an organization. 

The results show that, when shown a story about someone facing similar life circumstances or with a similar motivation to them, supporters are more likely to give. For example, you can include a quote from a supporter who donated to cancer research after losing their mother; this will improve the bond between your organization and supporters who have faced the same experience.

5. Find new ways to couch your ask. 

In his presentation, Dr. James mentioned a nonprofit that was having a hard time engaging supporters about leaving money to their organization in a will. When the nonprofit created a focus group of established supporters, they discovered that the focus group was much more successful in getting these donors to leave money to the organization than a direct information session or tailored ask. 

While this scenario specifically deals with an issue supporters usually put off (making decisions about their will), there are many ways to plan programming that will subtly transition into an ask, whether it's for a presentation by one of your success stories, a talk by a medical expert, or a think-tank session with more most active supporters. 

Dr. Russell James is a professor at Texas Tech University and is considered one of the premiere researchers on neurocognitive approaches to philanthropy.