Do you ever worry about “intruding” before you send out a fundraising appeal? Do you get heart palpitations when you pick up the phone to make an ask for a philanthropic gift? These feelings come from a sense you’re “taking” rather than “giving.”
5 Benefits of Giving
Whenever someone I know expresses resistance to asking for a philanthropic gift, I revisit 5 Ways Giving Is Good for You on the Greater Good Science Center blog. It’s helpful to reconnect with all the benefits giving has to offer. Because there’s plenty of research showing giving leads to a boost in health and happiness for both givers and recipients — and their collective peoples. And all sorts of giving yields this beneficial result. Generosity is wired into our brains. Let’s look at some of the science and data so you’ll never again feel bad about asking someone to give.
1. Giving Makes People Feel Happy
“For it is in giving that we receive.” — Saint Francis of Assisi
Perhaps you were taught it is better to give than to receive. It turns out good feelings elicited from giving are reflected in human biology.
- 1989 study by behavioral economist James Andreoni: The concept of “warm-glow giving” – also called “impure altruism” because the giver gets something back — is introduced. Warm glow is the private benefits people receive, such as self-satisfaction, for having done their part.
- 2006 study by Jorge Moll, Jordan Grafman and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health: After MRI brain scanning of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves, researchers found giving won out. Giving to charities activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, releasing endorphins that create a “warm glow” or “helper’s high” effect.
- 2008 study by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and colleagues: Researchers found giving to anyone other than themselves lifted participants’ happiness more than self-spending, despite participants’ predictions to the contrary. Generosity kick starts happy chemical production in your system. Don’t feel bad asking; unless survival is at issue, giving trumps hoarding.
2. Giving is Good for Health
“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” — Chinese proverb
Here is a sampling of just some of the research linking different forms of generosity to better health.
- 1999 study led by Doug Oman, University of California, Berkeley: Research found elderly who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44% less likely to die over a five-year period than non-volunteers, even after controlling for their age, exercise habits, general health, and negative health habits like smoking. Sometimes people have more trouble modifying bad behaviors than beginning good ones; why not help them?
- 2002 research by Stephanie Brown, University of Michigan and NIH: Longitudinal research showed people who give live longer, reducing their risk of dying by nearly 60% compared with non-giving peers. When extolling all the benefits of giving, including tax benefits, why not wrap other rewards for giving into your appeal?
- 2008 and beyond work by Stephen Post: Through 50 studies at 44 major institutions, Post, a professor of preventative medicine, has focused on the traits and qualities that create happiness, health, contentment, and lasting success in life. In Why Good Things Happen to Good People he reports giving to others increases health benefits in people with chronic illness. Don’t be stingy when sharing opportunities to give; you’re helping, not hurting.
3. Giving Promotes Cooperation and Connection
“Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate.” — Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center
The aforementioned 2006 MRI study by Moll and Grafman found givers not only experienced heightened neuro-activity in their pre-frontal “pleasure center” but also in the subgenual area in the frontal lobes that helps control the release of oxytocin. This hormone promotes social bonding, trust, and cooperation. Perhaps this is because when you give, you’re more likely to get back. And this relates to one of Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence and persuasion: reciprocity.
- 2007 work by sociologists Brent Simpson and Robb Willer: Reciprocity for prosocial behavior can be real or simply perceived. Research suggests when you give to others, your generosity seems likely to be rewarded by others down the line—sometimes by the person you gave to, sometimes by someone else. You can even suggest to people “your giving is a blessing.”
- 2013 work by Brent Simpson and Rob Willer: Beyond altruism or reciprocity, many other social norms around giving can come into play. This is why saying “people like you (using some part of the donor’s identity) generally give…” can be a powerful motivator.
- John Cacioppo, author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, 2008: A ripple effect was found from reciprocal altruism born of social connection, yielding to a greater advance toward health, wealth and happiness. Benefits come from serving and helping others in a conscious way. Do more good deeds: When you make asking a conscious act, would-be donors can make the conscious decision to give – and reap the rewards.
4. Giving Evokes Gratitude
“Gratitude opens your heart and carries the urge to give back – to do something good in return, either for the person who helped you or for someone else.” — Barbara Fredrickson, Director, Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (PEP Lab) at UNC-Chapel Hill
Research has found cultivating gratitude is integral to happiness, health, and social bonds. For example:
- 2003 studies by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, co-directors of the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness: These researchers measured the effects of thankfulness on health, finding teaching college students to “count their blessings, not their burdens” caused them to exercise more, be more optimistic, and feel better about their lives overall. This is one reason making philanthropic appeals during the year-end holidays, when people tend to focus on their blessings, is so effective.
- 2010 study led by Nathaniel Lambert, Florida State University: Expressing gratitude to a close friend or romantic partner was found to strengthen one’s sense of connection to that person. Could expressing gratitude towards donors help you create more connected relationships?
- Research by Dr. Barbara Frederikson: This psychologist found expressing gratitude in words or actions not only boosts your own positivity, but others as well. In the process of expressing gratitude you strengthen bonds and reinforce the recipient’s kindness.
5. Giving is Contagious
“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” — Leo Tolstoy
“We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” — Winston Churchill
When we give, we don’t only help the immediate recipient of our gift. We also spur a ripple effect of generosity through our community.
- 2008 study by Paul Zak: In this famous study, neuroscientists found giving releases oxytocin (also known as the “trust hormone”), inducing feelings of warmth, euphoria and connection to others that are addictive. An oxytocin high (which lasts about two hours) can jumpstart a virtuous circle of giving, which is why it makes sense to ask donors to share their giving on social media or engage in peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns immediately following their own giving.
- 2010 study, James Fowler, UCSD and Nicholas Christakis, Harvard: Research found when one person behaves generously, it inspires others to behave generously later, toward different people. When people benefit from kindness they “pay it forward,” helping others to create a cascade of cooperation. Positive acts of “social proof” influence additional giving.
- In the case of one Brazilian man’s pathological generosity engendered by stroke-induced brain damage, he gave and gave and gave like crazy. But here’s the kicker, per neurologist Ricardo de Oliveira: “João never actively sought out street children and offered them money or sweets. But whenever children asked, João couldn’t help reaching for his wallet. It was more or less a reflex, like the one that made Pavlov’s dogs salivate whenever they heard the dinner bell.” The urge to give seldom bubbles up spontaneously; you are required to ask.
New Year’s Resolution: Show that Philanthropy is Something for Something
“I have one simple message to offer and it’s this: giving is the most potent force on the planet. Giving is the one kind of love you can count on, because you can always choose it: it’s always within your power to give. Giving will protect you your whole life long.” — Stephen Post, author, bioethicist, Why Good Things Happen to Good People
I talk a lot about the fundraiser’s role in facilitating the powerful pathway to passionate philanthropy. Never feel bad about taking people on this journey, interspersing it with plentiful opportunities to give. It turns out this is a potent way to help people find purpose, transcend difficulties, and find fulfillment and meaning in life. Your gift of opportunity becomes the recipient’s gift of health and happiness.
The research has all been done. By psychologists, neurologists, behavioral economists and sociologists. We know a lot about what motivates philanthropy.
It’s now up to you to choose. Use it, or lose it.
When you choose the latter (generally by default), we all lose. You, your would-be donor, and society as a whole.
This year, choose to actively facilitate philanthropy – “love of humanity” — whenever and wherever you can.
Download this Culture of Philanthropy Checklist loaded with action tips to determine if your nonprofit has one in place, and how to get started with adopting a culture of philanthropy.
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