Why Simple Words Work When Telling a Fundraising Story

Use your words
Story starts with words. Word choice matters. It matters for fundraising story. For example,

  • Simple, conversational, family words work. They match the social, emotional, empathy system. This encourages giving.
  • Formal, contract, finance words don’t. They trigger the math, logic, error-detection system. This can block giving.

A powerful fundraising story starts with the right words.

Just sales, right?
Isn’t fundraising just sales? Whether it’s a used car or insurance or scholarships, sales is sales, right? Not exactly.

Fundraising is different. Fundraising is different because charitable decisions are different. They’re different at a fundamental, neurological, chemical level.

Brains and giving
The first brain imaging study of charitable giving revealed some important facts.[1] Giving shares some neural processes with other financial decisions. But charitable decisions are different. They trigger a different brain region. It’s a region that activates, “when humans looked at their own babies and romantic partners.” [2]

Further, “This region plays a key role … in social attachment and the release of the neuromodulators oxytocin and vasopressin.” [3]

Oxytocin is part of the family-bonding system. (It’s the family-bonding hormone.) Philanthropy engages this family-bonding system.

Chemistry and giving
Giving comes from social emotion. Social emotion comes from the “love and family” system. The family-bonding hormone oxytocin affects this system.

Brain imaging was the first piece of evidence to show these connections. Later experiments got more direct. In one, people received a nasal spray. Some got oxytocin. Others got a placebo. Everyone then had a chance to give money. The result?

“Oxytocin raised generosity in the [game] by 80% over placebo.”[4]

No, this does not mean, “I’ve found my fundraising answer! Just carry this nasal spray. Now, what excuse can I use to squirt it up the donor’s nose?”

The point is scientific. Giving links directly with the family-bonding hormone.

The chemistry of old-fashioned fundraising
There is another solution. We don’t have to squirt something up the donor’s nose to increase oxytocin. A later study found another way. Human touch, when combined with receiving a small gift, increased oxytocin. This surge in oxytocin also increased giving. It “increased monetary sacrifice by 243% relative to untouched controls.”[5]

New call-to-action

In fundraising, it’s always been a good idea to shake the donor’s hand or give a pat on the back. Bringing a small gift for a donor can also help. These age-old practices work. What’s new is learning why they work. They work through the family-bonding hormone.

Sales, the family/social way
Sales is not a dirty word. Effective fundraising uses many of the same tools. But fundraising is different. It’s different in the brain. It’s different in body chemistry.

What do the brain and the chemistry tell us? Fundraising is not just logic and math. It’s not just a market/contract transaction. It’s about social emotion. Understanding this can change our words.

Jeff Brooks explains, “Fundraising doesn’t live in the cubicles and carpeted offices of the business world. Fundraising belongs to a messier, more passionate world that includes love letters, ransom notes, pleas for mercy, and outbreaks of religious fervor. The standards of business communication are just roadblocks in that world. If you drag your fundraising into the world of professional communications, you’ll leave donors cold and untouched.”[6]

Fundraising is about social emotion. It’s about building family/social relationships. How do we do this? We already know-how. Think about it. How do we build a stronger relationship with a relative? We call. We write. We visit. How do we build stronger donor relationships? Same answer. We call. We write. We visit.

Words matter
And when we call, or write, or visit a family member, what words do we use? Do we use formal, technical, contract words? No. Instead, we use social, conversational, family words. We use simple words and stories.
Generosity and sharing come from the social-emotion system. Family/social language triggers the right frame of mind. It works. What is family/social language? Ask this simple question: “Would you have used this phrase in a normal conversation with your grandmother?”

gray cartoon image with thought bubble what would grandma thing about this?

No? Be careful. You might be slipping into technical, formal, or contract language. This language can shift the listener’s frame of mind. It can shift to a detached, defensive, market-exchange perspective. This inhibits sharing. In fundraising experiments, these word choices can make a big difference.

Formal words fail
Complex charitable planning can offer enormous benefits. Effective fundraisers understand these options. They understand how to help their donors. But there’s a danger. It’s easy to slip into technical or contract terms. Does it matter? One experiment tested this.[7]

People read identical descriptions of a charitable remainder trust. The only difference was this. One began with the phrase, “Make a transfer of assets ….” The other began with, “Make a gift ….”

The share of people “definitely interested now” in donating this way also differed. It more than tripled for the second description.

Even more formal words fail even more
Another experiment tested even more formal language. One description of a gift annuity began with, “Enter into a contract with a charity where you transfer your cash or property ….”

The other began with, “Make a gift ….”

The share “definitely interested now” in the gift annuity also differed. It more than quadrupled when switching to the simple language.

This isn’t just a theoretical issue. That last formal phrasing wasn’t a lab creation. It was taken from a popular fundraising brochure. It had already been used by hundreds of charities.

Adding and removing formal words
Another set of experiments showed the same result in a different way.[8] Some people read about a complex charitable gift including its formal name. Others read the same description, but without the formal name. In every case, removing the technical, formal name increased interest.

One test simply removed the name “charitable remainder trust.” Otherwise, the gift description stayed the same. This simple act more than doubled those “definitely interested now” in the gift. Removing the name “charitable gift annuity” also dramatically increased interest. Removing “remainder interest deed” did the same.

The results were all consistent. Removing formal, financial, contract terms increased interest in the gift.

Formal words? Not interested.
Another set of experiments asked a different question. What would you like to read about on your favorite charity’s website?[9] Formal, insider terms did not fare well.

For example, people did not want to read about “Planned giving.” But they did want to read about “Other ways to give.” Even more, they wanted to read about “Other ways to give smarter.” Changing to this phrasing quadrupled those, “definitely interested in reading more.”[10]

But it means the same thing!
People didn’t want to read about “Planned giving.” (Only 4.5% were “definitely interested in reading more.”) They didn’t want to read about “Gift planning.” (Only 3.4% were “definitely interested in reading more.”)

They wanted to read about “Other ways to give.” (15.6% were “definitely interested in reading more.”) Even more, they wanted to read about “Other ways to give smarter.” (19.5% were “definitely interested in reading more.”)

People were then asked what they expected to see. Did they expect to read about:

  • Gifts in wills
  • Living trusts
  • Gifts from IRAs
  • Gift annuities
  • Bank account transfer-on-death titles
  • Gifts of stocks, bonds, and real estate
  • Capital gain, income, and estate taxes?

The result was a shock. When people clicked on

  • “Other ways to give” or
  • “Other ways to give smarter”

they were just as likely to expect this full list of topics as when they clicked on

  • “Planned giving” or
  • “Gift planning”

People expected the same information. But conversational descriptions worked. Standard, industry “insider” terms didn’t.

Formal words fail again
In yet another study, 23% of people were interested now in making “a gift to charity in my will.”

Only half that percentage was interested now in making “a bequest gift to charity”[11]

In different studies with different tests, the answer is always the same. Introducing giving with formal, technical, contract terms fails. Simple words work.

Avoiding “technical” difficulties
Effective fundraising story evokes a clear image that

  1. Produces social emotion, and
  2. Avoids error detection.

This two-part goal reflects the two brain systems.

  1. The social-emotion system is the engine. It drives giving motivation.
  2. The math, logic, finance system is the brake. It detects errors that can interrupt giving motivation.

Different words trigger different systems. They can alter the donor’s frame of mind.

Formal or contract words trigger a market-exchange frame of mind. This world is logical, mathematical, and detached. It is a world of defensive, protective, or aggressive competition.

Social and family settings use simple, conversational words. This is the world of social emotion and social bonding. This is the cooperative world of sharing.

Start simple
Even if things may eventually get complex, we don’t want to start there. We want to start simple.

Fundraiser David Hall shares this advice.[12] He asks for complex charitable gifts, but he starts simple. In his conversations, there are no CGAs, CRTs, CLTs, or RLEs. There are only “simple agreements” or “special arrangements.” The formal terms disappear.

Eventually, technical terms may be necessary. But we don’t want to start there. We want to start simple instead. Delaying the technical terms helps. It prevents interference with the social-emotional motivation to give.

Ultimately, these gifts may involve legal and financial technicalities. But these should come later. They come after establishing the intention to give. They come after the social-emotion “engine” is running. At that point, these details can even help. They can help calm the math, logic, error-detection system. They can keep the donor’s foot off the brake.

Sales strategies can be useful in fundraising. But fundraising is not just sales. It’s different. It’s different at a fundamental, neurological, chemical level. Family/social relationships encourage philanthropy. Market/exchange relationships don’t.

Use words that trigger the right mindset. Use words that fit the right world.

[1] 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.

[2] Id at p. 15625.

[3] Id.

[4] Zak, P. J., Stanton, A. A., & Ahmadi, S. (2007). Oxytocin increases generosity in humans. PloS one, 2(11), e1128, p. 3.

[5] Morhenn, V. B., Park, J. W., Piper, E., & Zak, P. J. (2008). Monetary sacrifice among strangers is mediated by endogenous oxytocin release after physical contact. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(6), 375-383. p. 375.

[6] Brooks, J. (2012). The fundraiser’s guide to irresistible communications. Emerson & Church Publishers. p. 116.

[7] James, R. N., III (2018). Describing complex charitable giving instruments: Experimental tests of technical finance terms and tax benefits. Nonprofit Management & Leadership. 28(4), 437-452.

[8] Id.

[9] The actual question was:
Suppose you are viewing the website of a charity representing a cause that is important in your life. In addition to a “Donate Now” button, the following buttons appear on the website. Please rate your level of interest in clicking on the button to read the corresponding information. (Note: after answering this set of questions, you will be asked to read information about one of these topics. Please rate the ones you are actually interested in more highly than those you are less interested in.)

James, R. N., III (2018). Creating understanding and interest in charitable financial planning and estate planning: An experimental test of introductory phrases. Journal of Personal Finance. 17(2), 9-22.

[10] James, R. N., III (2018). Creating understanding and interest in charitable financial planning and estate planning: An experimental test of introductory phrases. Journal of Personal Finance. 17(2), 9-22.

[11] James, R. N., III (2016). Phrasing the charitable bequest inquiry. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27(2), 998-1011.

[12] Many thanks go to David C. Hall, CFRE, a planned giving fundraiser with many years of experience working at The Salvation Army, The American Humane Association, and the University of Arkansas, for sharing these experiences.


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