At last, the Not-So-Secret Formula for Raising Major Gifts

If you’re in the business of raising money for a cause, some on your staff (or your board) may have probably wondered, “What really leads a major donor to decide to make a gift to a nonprofit organization? What’s the not-so-secret formula?”

Is it reminding donors about tax benefits? Showing them that others like them are giving too? Or perhaps it’s offering them public recognition or an opportunity to gain some kind of permanence?

These are just a few of the dozens of pretty good reasons why people choose to give. But to surface a formula you can use, you’ll need to first recognize that people choose to make gifts because their social emotions (emotions involving others):

  1. Get activated
  2. Persist thanks to visualization until the urge to give is satisfied

And yes, there is scientific evidence behind this claim. We’ll get to it in a moment.

First, Why Must Social Emotions Get Activated In Philanthropy?
Again, we’re not talking about reasons why people give. We’re talking about the real formula you need to know and understand because that’s what really drives major giving.

Let me explain further. Suppose a donor believes they are giving because of their religious beliefs. The question to ask that donor is, why did you choose to give to this specific organization, and not the thousands of others that also have missions that align with your religious beliefs?

That question will reveal what underlies the more surface level reasons for why donors give.

Sure, religion may play a role. But that donor will choose specific causes and organizations to donate to because of how their social emotions have bound them to that charity’s mission.

If religion was their only reason for giving, they would have gone online, searched for “religious-based charities,” methodically gone through lists of hundreds of them, and narrowed it down based on a set of predetermined, rational, objective criteria using tools like Charity Navigator, and then given an amount they had already settled on.

Do you know anyone who donates like that? Me neither.

You could do the same exercise with just about any motive for giving. It still comes back to the same question:

Why did you choose to give to this organization, and not the thousands of others?

The Science of Social Emotion Activation
Dr. Russell James has conducted numerous brain imaging studies related to charitable giving. In fact, his work in this and other fields within the science of philanthropy led to his being inducted into the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners Hall of Fame in 2021.

In other words, he’s kind of a big deal.

Dr. James has been able to demonstrate a causal link between charitable giving and the activation of the areas of the brain that value social-emotional outcomes.

Read that sentence again.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that the more you can elicit social emotions, the more a person will be inspired and motivated to make charitable gifts.

So it’s not whether your organization spends only 10% on administration. And it isn’t because the work you do is awesome either.

Rather, it’s whether an individual’s social experience (their autobiography—involving the people they care about, their community, or their values) intersects in some way with your organization and its mission, thereby activating their social emotions.

Enough jargon! Which social emotions are we talking about? And what’s the catalyst?
I’m so glad you asked. Let’s first look at the two primary social emotions that inspire and motivate donors to make large gifts. Then we’ll discuss the catalyst.

1. Empathy

This one probably doesn’t surprise anyone.

As you probably are well familiar, empathy happens when a person puts themselves in another person’s situation, and feels it from that person’s point of view. This is different from sympathy, which is when you may feel for someone, but you remain in your own perspective.

A common sympathy phrase is to ‘look for the silver lining’. Empathy doesn’t do that. It just feels what the suffering person is feeling, and doesn’t look for a way out.

Empathy can be broken into three types – cognitive, physical, and compassionate. And they are sort of sequential. In other words, the farther you can get a donor to move toward compassionate empathy, the more likely they will make a charitable gift.

2. Identification

In stories, identification is the emotion that makes a particular character ‘relatable.’ You’ve been through something similar, even on a subconscious level, so you can feel something of what they’re feeling.

Identification is closely tied to empathy, because the more you can identify with a person’s pain, need, or suffering, the more you will empathize with them.

So those are the two social emotions you need to elicit if you want to generate interest in a major gift. Now let’s examine the catalyst.

Visualization—the Catalyst for All Major Giving
Identification and empathy are essential social emotions to generate if you want your donors to give at their highest capacity. But visualization is that essential catalyst that helps make the urge to give almost unstoppable.

You need all three:


Think of them as ingredients.

In fact, think BREAD! Not money ‘bread’… think food bread.

In order to bake bread you need grain (flour), water, and yeast (the catalyst). Without the catalyst, you don’t get any bread. No dough! No MONEY!!

Ok, maybe that’s not the best analogy. But hopefully you get the idea—the catalyst (visualization) is essential.

How to inspire visualization.
Certain words can help activate a region of the brain called the lingual gyrus, which helps the donor visualize a particular scenario (such as a story or experience that’s part of their autobiography) or an outcome (how they can become the hero in their own life story through support of your cause).

In fact, this same region of the brain lights up when people are asked about making bequests (though, not by using the word ‘bequest’). But that’s another discussion. Although, you can learn which words work from Dr. James in our archive here.

Anyway, putting a giving decision before a supporter also activates the precuneus area of the brain, which is used when a person takes on a perspective outside of their own.

To be clear then, to drive visualization you don’t necessarily have to provide actual visuals like photos or videos. You can succeed using just words.

For example, one of the most powerful forms of visualization is autobiographical visualization.

You can use words or questions to get a donor thinking deeply and emotionally about their own life story so they begin visualizing certain moments and the emotions associated with them.

When you help them do that so they think about the intersection of their own life story with your cause and the act of making a charitable gift, their personal story (which is surely very relatable) activates social emotions and visualizations that move the idea forward in a powerful way.

So, words can trigger powerful visualization.

But images and graphics sure can help too! This is why photos and effective graphic design elements and diagrams can increase the likelihood that a donor will make a large gift. A capital campaign that presents the giving options in the form of a building isn’t just a fun idea. It actually provides a powerful visualization of what the donor’s gift will accomplish. Giving menus can help too!

The key is to help each supporter relate emotionally and visualize how they can be the hero in their own life story so they find meaning in their life through support for your cause.

Sounds good, right?

But this is (unfortunately) where too many fundraisers go wrong.
Stay with me on this.

First, think about every good story. In it you find a character to identify and empathize with. And you can visualize the problem they’re facing and how victory might look. In fundraising, you can help donors visualize the problem and the pain of doing nothing, as well as the powerful changes that will result when they make a large gift.

So who should the main character be in a fundraising story?

It needs to be someone who is like the donor so they can easily identify with them. The person needs to have a natural fit within the fundraising story.

It is often possible to find that story in someone who benefits from the work of your organization. But when it comes to major gifts fundraising in particular, the most important character is often the donor themselves!

That’s why it’s so important for gift officers to build one-to-one relationships with individual donors with capacity. That’s the most effective way to help a donor feel social emotion and visualize how their life intersects with your cause and how they can be a hero in their own life story.

Fancy brochures and emails can support the process. But fundraisers help connect the dots. They deploy the formula necessary for making big gifts happen.

They help major donors see how their own life purpose and path has always been connected to your mission. This is where sometimes people will say they feel like this was ‘meant to be,’ or that ‘we were led to find each other.’

Now, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t also use stories of impact as they relate to actual beneficiaries of your work. Not at all. That’s often a very effective way to support a gift officer’s fundraising, and you can produce all three social emotions from those stories, when used well.

But ultimately, what motivates the biggest gifts is when the donors are helped (by people) to see that by giving, they are advancing their own hero stories and producing incredible, life-changing outcomes for many other people as well as themselves. Giving makes them feel good. Giving bigger makes them feel better. It makes them heroic!

If the donor is led to identify with someone else, you can see how that is really still about the donor. It is their act of identification that produces the emotions – within themselves – that lead to giving.

One Last Component In The Formula That Cannot Be Ignored
Pay attention here. This is very important.

The last component in a successful giving formula is something you want subtracted from it.

It is something that fights against social emotions called ‘rational error detection’.

This idea is another one rooted in brain imaging science from Dr. James and others.

When you introduce logic, reasoning, math, and other tools of rational thought into the discussion about making a charitable gift, you are literally killing the social emotions you’ve been working so hard to produce in the donor. Those parts of the brain that value social emotions turn off, and other parts that value reason, objectivity, and rational skepticism start to emerge.

Once a person starts questioning things, and wondering why the percentages don’t all add up to 100, and pondering how certain things don’t seem to quite make sense because of X, Y, and Z, you have lost them.

In other words, logical reasoning that drives rational error detection is the enemy of philanthropy. So says science. And this is why you need to keep it simple. Avoid words and visuals that drive analytical thinking.

At last, here is the complete formula:


Keep it simple, specific, and focused on empathy, identification, and driving visualization.

When you’re helping a donor mine the depths of their own life story, those details matter a lot. So, try to focus your communications more on ways that drive your donor’s to visualize their own mental images. Help them gain more clarity on the past and how they felt about it. Help them gain more self-awareness. Get as detailed as it takes through asking questions about them as you work to help the donor feel the emotions that will allow them to identify with and visualize the impact they can have by giving to your organization.

As Dr. James says, the most important thing in fundraising is to help the donor advance their hero story. You want to help them figure out why they care so much about your mission, and then decide to do something about it.

Learn More and Be The Fundraiser You Always Wanted To Be Here.
You can learn a lot more about the science behind major giving and how you can help donors make decisions that help both your organization and them. Just sign up to be alerted when the next registration period begins for the Donor Story: Epic Fundraising online training course with Dr. Russell James.

Included with the training, you’ll get to participate in MarketSmart’s monthly ‘Mastermind Mixers’— interactive events involving fundraisers just like you.



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