4 big ideas Dr. Russell James got from scanning donor brains with neuroimaging equipment

Philanthropy originates in story. In the earliest foundations of human social cooperation, story is at the center.[1] In empathy development of preschool children, story is at the center.[2] In personal motivations for major gifts of wealth, story is at the center.[3]

What is it?
But what is story? What do we mean by that word? When do we have it? When do we not?

Different sources give different answers. There are many different lists of elements of a story. Any particular story contains many elements. But at its core, what is essential for a story?

Character and plot
A story requires two elements: character and plot. Without character and plot, it isn’t a story. With character and plot, it is.

Other elements may be nice. But they don’t define a story. A story can have a theme. But so can a financial statement. A story can have a point of view. But so can a structural engineering report. These elements can appear in a story. But they don’t create a story. However, if there is character and plot, there is a story.

Having character and plot makes it a story. But this doesn’t always make it a good story. It may not be a useful or persuasive story. So, what does it take to create a compelling story?

Good story
Unfortunately, it’s hard to create a good story. The skills may take years to learn. Even years of practice doesn’t guarantee mastery. There is no simple blueprint to becoming a Faulkner or Hemingway. Reading this article, or any other, won’t turn you into Steinbeck.

So now what? Compelling story is subjective. It is an art. But there is something objective about it: the way it looks in the brain.

Fundraising story
Compelling fundraising story does something special. It leads to giving. Neuroimaging shows what this looks like in the brain. In these studies, giving is triggered by:

    1. Social emotion.
      This comes from…
    2. Identifying with another (i.e., perspective + empathy).
      This is aided by…
    3. Visualization.
      These steps work. Unless. They work unless they are interrupted by
    4. Rational error detection.

Let’s look at each of these steps in more detail.

1. Social emotion
What’s the goal of effective story? In his workshop for aspiring Hollywood screenwriters, Michael Hauge explains, “No matter what kind of storyteller you are … you have one primary objective. You are really here to learn only one thing and that is how to elicit emotion.”[4]

This goal of eliciting emotion is a bit narrower for the fundraiser. Fundraisers encourage sharing with others. This means they must elicit social emotions. A story that makes us hungry or horny does trigger emotion. (It might even make a good screenplay for certain genres.) However, those aren’t the kind of emotions that help with fundraising. Instead, compelling fundraising story must generate social emotions.

My personal struggle
Fundraising story is about emotion. It’s about social emotion. This may seem obvious. But please understand that this is hard for me.

I’ll admit it. Data analytics research geeks like me don’t do emotion. So, in my research, I tried to avoid it.

In one project, I went looking exclusively for logic. I had already published findings about giving and cognition. Higher scores on logical cognitive tests led to more donations.[5] Now I wanted to learn which tests worked best.[6]
This study involved a large group of older adults (mean age of 76). They completed eighteen different panels of logical cognitive tests. The tests measured math, memory, reading, and other logical tasks.

Plot twist
Here’s what happened. Only four among those eighteen tests strongly predicted donations. These four were also the only tests that required drawing. Yes, drawing. In one test, people were shown a card with three geometric figures. They then attempted to reproduce the drawing from memory. In another test, they drew lines to complete a complex connect-the-dots task.

New call-to-action

The answer
What on earth did this mean? The answer was surprising. Spatial memory (tested by drawing) and social emotion are linked. The same hormone influences both. [7] Connected brain areas process both.[8] (The two regions border each other.)

Among this elderly group, some regions of neural degeneration would be no surprise. Any deterioration at this place would do two things. It would lower scores on spatial memory drawing tests. And it would reduce social-emotional processing.

My attempt to ignore social emotion had failed. I was like Jonah fleeing in the opposite direction. But despite my best efforts, I had been captured, returned, and spit back on the shore. I couldn’t avoid it. Philanthropy was about social emotion.

The same answer everywhere
Fortunately, not everyone is so stubborn. Neuroscience research has repeatedly found the same connection. For example, injecting the social-bonding hormone oxytocin increasing giving.[9]

Neuroimaging shows the connection, too. Even the first neuroimaging study of giving found it. Donation decisions uniquely engaged a brain region that “plays key roles in social attachment and affiliative reward mechanisms in humans and other animals.”[10]

Philanthropy is about social emotion. As neuroimaging technology evolved, a more detailed answer emerged.

2. Identifying (perspective + empathy)
A later study used more advanced neuroimaging.[11] What predicted charitable giving? It was activation in a brain region used for valuing social-emotional outcomes.[12] No surprise there.

But this activation depended on input from two other brain regions. One shifts attention to focus on another’s perspective.[13] The other plays a role in empathy.[14] Both parts were needed.[15] Both together made donating feel valuable. This, in turn, predicted giving. In other words,

Perspective activation + empathy activation

Social-emotional valuation activation


Identifying with the character
Story requires both character and plot. But it starts with character. Plot cannot be compelling unless we care about the characters.
In effective fundraising story, social emotion is the goal. That’s what triggers the donation. But social emotion requires specific character elements. The audience must be able to:

  1. Understand the character’s perspective, and
  2. Empathize with the character.

In other words, they must identify with the character. As an equation, this would be

Identify = Perspective + Empathy

Fundraising requires social emotion which requires perspective and empathy to connect.

In neuroimaging,

Identifying (perspective + empathy)

Social-emotional valuation


In neuroimaging, donors mus visualize to support social emotion which requires identification - AKA empathy and perspective to inspire giving

An effective story starts with a character. It starts with a character the audience can identify with.

Charities like to focus on their stories. Charity insiders find these stories compelling. They know the characters. They care about the characters.

But a donor is not the same. He[16] may not know these characters. That’s a critical difference. The charity’s story might have a great plot. But unless the donor identifies with the characters, that doesn’t matter. If a donor doesn’t care, the story can’t work.

“Like me”
Who is the easiest character to identify with? The answer is, yourself. Taking your own perspective isn’t hard. Having empathy for yourself comes naturally. This reality applies to story. Storytelling guru Robert McKee explains,

“Empathetic means ‘like me.’”[17]

This also applies to fundraising. Donors identify with those they feel are like them in some meaningful way. When a person is “like me,” it’s easier to take their perspective. It’s easier to empathize with them.

We might argue that a story about thousands of people ought to be compelling. But this isn’t a good character. It’s a story about a number. It’s not a story about a character “like me.”

A story about one person is different. That character can be “like me.” In fundraising, the story about one person works better than the story about thousands.[18]

In brain imaging, a story about one person does something else. It generates more perspective and empathy activation.[19] It helps people identify (perspective + empathy) with another. This leads to donations.

The most compelling fundraising story is the donor’s story. But any story can become the donor’s story to some extent. As the donor identifies with the story characters, the story becomes the donor’s story.

3. Visualizing
Social emotion is the goal. It triggers giving. This requires identifying with a character. It requires perspective + empathy. But before identifying comes visualizing. If we want people to feel something, we must first get them to see something.

In neuroimaging, words trigger internal visual representations.[20] Story increases this experience.[21] That’s what makes it powerful.

The back of the brain processes vision. One region is called the lingual gyrus. (It doesn’t have anything to do with speech. It just looks like a tongue.) This area processes complex scenes and faces. It’s also used in internal visualization. (Damaging this area means losing the ability to dream.)[22]

Reading disconnected sentences triggers a little bit of lingual gyrus activation. Reading sentences in a story format triggers dramatically more activation.[23]

Visual philanthropy
What about fundraising? It’s hard to recreate major gift decisions in the lab. But we can ask people about charitable bequests. These are usually the largest donation a person will ever make.[24] Also, these are gifts of wealth holdings, not just disposable income.

What’s unique about these decisions? You guessed it. It is lingual gyrus activation.[25] More activation means more desire to make a charitable bequest gift.

But that isn’t all. These decisions also activate the precuneus. This area is used when we take an outside perspective on ourselves.[26] It’s required for visual imagery of autobiographical memories.[27] Thus, charitable bequest decisions are driven by “visualized autobiography.”

This isn’t just about visual story. This is about the donor’s story.

Second verse, same as the first
Exposing preschoolers to storybooks develops their prosocial skills.[28] This comes from specific story elements. These are

  • “whole, well-rounded, characters”
  • “that trigger the reader’s identification” and
  • “evoke emotional responses”.[29]

What increases giving? Neuroimaging says

  • Visualizing
  • Identifying (perspective + empathy), and
  • Social emotion.

Notice the parallels.[30] The answers are the same. Apparently, what works for preschoolers also works for donors.

4. No rational error detection
The final element of a successful story is actually the absence of an element. Emotion is powerful. But the brain prevents runaway emotional decisions. It has a brake.

That brake comes from regions that detect logical errors or conflicts.[31] This puts cognitive control on emotional decisions. These regions are like an accountant who shouts, “I object!” They often activate in response to number calculations.

These are mathematical, logical, error-detecting brain regions. They can interrupt social-emotional processes.

The lesson for fundraising story is two-fold. First, a successful story must make sense. We can’t get lost in a story if obvious errors keep pulling us out of it.

Second, logical reasoning is the brake. It’s not the engine. Preventing a logical, mathematical objection is important. These could interfere with an otherwise effective, visual, emotional story. But math or logic can’t drive a story. They can’t drive a gift. They can only stop it.

Story means character and plot. But what makes compelling fundraising story? In neuroimaging, it triggers

  • Visualizing
  • Identifying (perspective + empathy), and
  • Social emotion
  • Without error detection

That’s what it looks like in the brain scanner. That’s the technical outcome.

But how do we make it happen? The next article begins to explore this. It examines practical techniques that create this magical result.

[1] Kitcher, P. (2006) Ethics and evolution: How to get here from there. In F. B. M. de Waal, (Ed.) Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved (pp. 120-139). Princeton University Press; Yong, E. (2017, December 5). The desirability of storytellers. The Atlantic.
[2] Aram, D., & Aviram, S. (2009). Mothers’ storybook reading and kindergartners’ socioemotional and literacy development. Reading Psychology, 30(2), 175-194; Mar, R. A., Tackett, J. L., & Moore, C. (2010). Exposure to media and theory-of-mind development in preschoolers. Cognitive Development, 25(1), 69-78.
[3] Routley, C. J. (2011). Leaving a charitable legacy: Social influence, the self and symbolic immortality [Ph.D. dissertation]. University of the West of England. p. 220.
[4] Hauge, M. & Vogler, C. (2003). The hero’s 2 journeys [Audiobook]. Writer’s AudioShop. ISBN 978-1880717479
[5] James, R. N., III. (2011). Charitable giving and cognitive ability. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 16(1), 70-83.
[6] James, R. N., III. (2011). Cognitive skills in the charitable giving decisions of the elderly. Educational Gerontology, 37(7), 559-573.
[7] The social-bonding hormone oxytocin affects both philanthropic decisions and spatial memory. For spatial memory, see Neumann, I. D. (2008). Brain oxytocin: a key regulator of emotional and social behaviours in both females and males. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 20(6), 858-865. p. 862. For philanthropic decisions, see Zak, P. J., Stanton, A. A., & Ahmadi, S. (2007). Oxytocin increases generosity in humans. PloS One, 2(11), e1128.
[8] See discussion in James (2011). Cognitive skills in the charitable giving decisions of the elderly. Educational Gerontology, 37(7), 559-573.
[9] Zak, P. J., Stanton, A. A., & Ahmadi, S. (2007). Oxytocin increases generosity in humans. PloS one, 2(11), e1128.
[10] Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(42), 15623-15628.
[11] Hare, T. A., Camerer, C. F., Knoepfle, D. T., O’Doherty, J. P., & Rangel, A. (2010). Value computations in ventral medial prefrontal cortex during charitable decision making incorporate input from regions involved in social cognition. Journal of Neuroscience, 30(2), 583-590.
[12] The ventral medial prefrontal cortex. See, Adolphs, R. (2009). The social brain: neural basis of social knowledge. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 693-716.
[13] posterior superior temporal cortex
[14] anterior insula
[15] A later study found some people rely more on empathy while others rely more on perspective taking. Tusche, A., Böckler, A., Kanske, P., Trautwein, F. M., & Singer, T. (2016). Decoding the charitable brain: Empathy, perspective taking, and attention shifts differentially predict altruistic giving. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(17), 4719-4732.
[16] As a convention for clarity and variety, throughout this series the donor is referred to with “he/him/his” and the fundraiser is referred to with “she/her/hers.” Of course, any role can be played by any gender.
[17] Mckee, R. (1997) Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. ReganBooks. p. 141.
[18] Lee, S., & Feeley, T. H. (2016). The identifiable victim effect: A meta-analytic review. Social Influence, 11(3), 199-215.
[19] Ye, Z., Heldmann, M., Slovic, P., & Münte, T. F. (2020). Brain imaging evidence for why we are numbed by numbers. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-6.
[20] Dils, A. T., & Boroditsky, L. (2010). Visual motion aftereffect from understanding motion language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(37), 16396-16400.
[21] Zwaan, R.A. (2004). The immersed experiencer: toward an embodied theory of language comprehension. In B.H. Ross (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation, vol. 44 (pp. 35-62). Elsevier.
[22] Bischof, M., & Bassetti, C. L. (2004). Total dream loss: A distinct neuropsychological dysfunction after bilateral PCA stroke. Annals of Neurology, 56, 583-586.
[23] Yarkoni, T., Speer, N. K., & Zacks, J. M. (2008). Neural substrates of narrative comprehension and memory. Neuroimage, 41(4), 1408-1425. p. 1415.
[24] James, R. N., III. (2009). The myth of the coming charitable estate windfall. The American Review of Public Administration, 39(6), 661-674.
[25] James, R. N., III., & O’Boyle, M. W. (2014). Charitable estate planning as visualized autobiography: An fMRI study of its neural correlates. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43(2), 355-373.
[26] Vogeley, K., & Fink, G. R. (2003). Neural correlates of the first-person-perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(1), 38-42.
[27] Fletcher, P. C., Frith, C. D., Baker, S. C., Shallice, T., Frackowiak, R. S., & Dolan, R. J. (1995). The mind’s eye—precuneus activation in memory-related imagery. Neuroimage, 2(3), 195-200.
[28]Mar, R. A., Tackett, J. L., & Moore, C. (2010). Exposure to media and theory-of-mind development in preschoolers. Cognitive Development, 25(1), 69-78.
[29] Aram, D., & Aviram, S. (2009). Mothers’ storybook reading and kindergartners’ socioemotional and literacy development. Reading Psychology, 30(2), 175-194, p. 176.
[30] Also, notice how these elements merge. Identifying with another requires both perspective taking and empathy. But perspective taking is a form of visualization. And empathy is a form of social emotion. Thus, identifying with another requires both visualization and social emotion.
[31] Botvinick, M. M., Cohen, J. D., & Carter, C. S. (2004). Conflict monitoring and anterior cingulate cortex: An update. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(12), 539-546.

Related Resources:


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Get smarter with the SmartIdeas blog

Subscribe to our blog today and get actionable fundraising ideas delivered straight to your inbox!