Bernard Ross: How fundraisers can feed the altruism addiction

09 Oct 2023 Expert insight

The director of =mc Consulting looks at how charity fundraisers can use neurochemicals to help persuade major donor’s to be altruistic…

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Fundraisers can use neurochemicals to help persuade philanthropists to dig deep, spurred on by their altruism.  There is a family of four major neurochemicals designed by evolution to work on different parts of our brain and body automatically and unconsciously. They can help you fundraise.

You’ve probably heard of these Four Horsemen of the Amygdala: Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins- collectively remembered by the acronym DOSE.  If you’re asking a donor, especially a major donor, for support you should be organising stimuli – words, images, experiences – in a way that promotes DOSE production, and links altruistic addiction to your cause.

1. Dopamine 

Dopamine is responsible for motivation towards a goal. Importantly, it’s about the pleasure from anticipation rather than the actual result. That anticipation drives us to keep trying, and levels of dopamine go up when getting closer to a goal. This is how many online games loop you in. People are addicted to dopamine and will repeat behaviour that delivers a measure.

Implication: You need to make sure your prospect can see how they are driving progress. A diagram, or a graph showing how close the project is to success will help engage prospects here. Give current supporters regular updates on their impact. Donors need to feel agency to get the dopamine hit.

2. Oxytocin

The second neurochemical to consider is Oxytocin. This helps build empathy and social bonding. This is a drug we get hooked on at a very young age. As a breastfeeding mother and her baby gaze at each other, oxytocin is delivered via her breastmilk. Subsequent eye contact between mother and child drives up oxytocin levels in both.

This bonding over eye contact is then wired in for life. Cartoons use dopamine: characters have enormous eyes encouraging you to feel empathetic. Fundraising images involving eye contact promote empathy – driven by an increase in oxytocin.

Implication:  The words and images in your case for support should promote oxytocin. For example, use pictures of individuals looking up and out of your fundraising collateral. Look especially for images which can help the prospect understand how it feels to be in that situation.

3. Serotonin

Serotonin acts as a mood regulator and promotes a sense of self-worth. Lack of serotonin is often associated with anxiety and depression. You can promote serotonin through exercise, sunshine and healthy food. We often have a serotonin rush when we reflect on a happy memory.

Implication:  Find out where the prospect gets their sense of esteem from. For example, emphasise a prospect’s importance in the community or encourage them to remember a time when they felt a sense of achievement and link it to your proposition. Another way to do this is to secure encouragement from someone they respect. such as a spouse, a business partner, or a celebrity.

4. Endorphins

Endorphins make you feel good after a challenging run or workout– your ‘high’ is an endorphin rush. Their real purpose is to mask pain. This is vital to your evolutionary success, enabling the fight or flight response to kick in. Endorphins occur naturally when we take exercise. You can measure particularly high levels at the end of a charity run.

Implication: Even for a wealthy person, making a large gift can be quite emotionally taxing. Consider persuading a prospect to take part in an activity with you can help generate endorphins. The activity can be quite small, such as walking around your site, or much bigger, such as making a visit to a refugee camp. Anything that involves a degree of physical effort can help.

Feeding the altruism addiction in practice

Together, these four chemicals can create a powerful impact on a prospect’s receptivity to your message.

Fundraisers in a Scottish theatre company used the DOSE method to help persuade major donor prospects to pay for a lift - a lift that would make it easier for elderly theatregoers or those with restricted mobility to enjoy access throughout the theatre. The team organised a solicitation event at the top of the building, and got to work on DOSE cues:

  • Dopamine: On the way up the stairs there were posters about other donors who had already contributed signalling how close the target was. The prospects knew when they reached the top they could make the project happen.
  • OxytocinWalking up the stairs drove empathy for the beneficiaries. The prospects had spent their lives going to the easy-to-get-to ‘posh’ seats. Pictures of the potential beneficiaries looking at the prospects lined the walls. (There was a moment of truth when these prospects had to walk downstairs to visit the bathroom!)
  • SerotoninAs pledges were made in the small group every one of those donors could feel involved and valued. When the work was done donors were given a piece of the old stair banister mounted on a plaque- serotonin to go!
  • EndorphinsThe prospects were slightly older and maybe a bit less fit. The physical exercise of actually getting up the stairs, somewhat out of puff delivered an endorphin surge. And a second hit kicked in on committing a significant contribution.

Bernard Ross is director of =mc Consulting

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