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The Science Behind Nonprofit Giving: What Motivates Donors to Give

By Billy Sharma

Nonprofit direct marketing consultant, and author

Report from Wisely by Martha Chomyn

How to find valuable prospects, build portfolios, and save donor relationships without running a single complicated query.

Has this ever happened to you? 

You’ve been working at your nonprofit organization for a few years and a team member has left and you’re asked to “help out” with their old duties “until we hire someone else” and suddenly you’re a prospect researcher? It happens more often than you’d think! (Or maybe exactly as often as you think). But I’ve got good news for you: prospect researching is a great skill to have in your back pocket! It can only enhance your efforts as a fundraiser. 

But this can also be an intimidating arena to enter when you haven’t had any formal training. After all, aren’t researchers constantly running queries and data mining and manipulating excel spreadsheets? 

Traditionally, yes. But an organization shouldn’t be penalized potential fundraising dollars because no one on the team has a data science degree. Wisely has taken the most complicated parts of prospect research and simplified them so that anyone, regardless of skill level, can take advantage of mining their database.  

If you’re thinking about taking the plunge and exploring the world of prospect research, or if you’ve (un)officially been dubbed your organization’s PR, here’s a quick overview of what is typically involved in the role.

The other half of the subjects got a note asking them to spend the money on someone else or donate it to charity. They gave money to the needy or bought gifts for others. Instead of getting coffee for themselves, some even treated a friend to a cup.

At the end of the day, the researchers called everyone up and asked them how the unexpected windfall had impacted their level of happiness that day.

The first surprising finding was that the amount of money ($5 or $20) didn’t matter much. What was more surprising was that those who had been assigned to spend that money on others reported higher levels of happiness.

Most people assume that generosity involves sacrifice: We are giving something up so someone else can have more. But this assumption turns out to be largely incorrect.

In fact, many people experience a bigger boost in happiness when they spend money on other people or help others. In these cases, this is proof that nonprofit giving is literally better than getting.

Dr. Benartz – a professor and co-head of the behavioural decision-making group at UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Dr. Olivola – an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and editor of the book “The Science of Giving” found a similar effect in their own survey.

When they asked online respondents to imagine how happy they would be if they spent a $100 windfall on themselves, their average response on a five-point scale (with 5 being “very happy”) was 3.89.

However, when they asked a second group how happy they would be if they spent that $100 on someone else, they reported an average happiness level of 4.32.

We often assume giving money away is a choice between our happiness and the happiness of others. But this research is a reminder that generosity is much more than that. We are built so that giving also feels good. When you donate to a cause you believe in, everybody wins.

Most philosophies and religions have a strong belief in nonprofit giving. Not only does it have the obvious benefit of helping others, but also it’s apparently one of the most therapeutic things we can do for ourselves.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

So don’t feel bad about asking people to give to your cause. Here are some fundraising letter templates to help you get started! 

Much of the research into fundraising by Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia, Lara Aknin at Simon Fraser University, and Michael Norton at Harvard Business School, has centred on how people feel when they give.

On one occasion they handed out envelopes containing $5 or $20 to people on the street.

For some, the cash came with a note asking them to spend the money on themselves. Some bought jewelry, others bought drinks at Starbucks or sushi at a restaurant.

Nonprofit Giving

The other half of the subjects got a note asking them to spend the money on someone else or donate it to charity. They gave money to the needy or bought gifts for others. Instead of getting coffee for themselves, some even treated a friend to a cup.

At the end of the day, the researchers called everyone up and asked them how the unexpected windfall had impacted their level of happiness that day.

The first surprising finding was that the amount of money ($5 or $20) didn’t matter much. What was more surprising was that those who had been assigned to spend that money on others reported higher levels of happiness.

Most people assume that generosity involves sacrifice: We are giving something up so someone else can have more. But this assumption turns out to be largely incorrect.

In fact, many people experience a bigger boost in happiness when they spend money on other people or help others. In these cases, this is proof that nonprofit giving is literally better than getting.

Dr. Benartz – a professor and co-head of the behavioural decision-making group at UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Dr. Olivola – an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and editor of the book “The Science of Givingfound a similar effect in their own survey.

When they asked online respondents to imagine how happy they would be if they spent a $100 windfall on themselves, their average response on a five-point scale (with 5 being “very happy”) was 3.89.

However, when they asked a second group how happy they would be if they spent that $100 on someone else, they reported an average happiness level of 4.32. Nonprofit Giving Science

We often assume giving money away is a choice between our happiness and the happiness of others. But this research is a reminder that generosity is much more than that. We are built so that giving also feels good. When you donate to a cause you believe in, everybody wins.

Most philosophies and religions have a strong belief in nonprofit giving. Not only does it have the obvious benefit of helping others, but also it’s apparently one of the most therapeutic things we can do for ourselves.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

So don’t feel bad about asking people to give to your cause. Here are some fundraising letter templates to help you get started! 

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