An Introduction to Neurofundraising

In order to delve into neurofundraising, one must first understand what motivates human beings. Even on the biological level, understanding what drives men and women proves very useful when trying to raise money.

How did science and fundraising become intertwined? Neurofundraising stems from the scientific discipline of Neuroscience, which focuses on the structure and functions of the brain and nervous system. Understanding what drives human response impacts the decisions you make as a fundraiser. Through increased knowledge of human responses, fundraisers can learn more effective ways to engage donors.

An Introduction to Neurofundraising
An Introduction to Neurofundraising 

Continue reading this resource to learn about this scientific approach to understand how to best relate to donor prospects.

The Role of Neurotransmitters

What exactly is oxytocin and why do we care? Oxytocin is a powerful dopamine-system neurotransmitter (neuropeptide) that calms the heart and was originally thought to be secreted only by women who were breastfeeding. Further research showed that while women tend to produce greater variances in oxytocin, it is produced in men as well. An increased presence of oxytocin is associated with “positive” emotions such as trust, love, generosity, compassion and empathy.

Nicknamed the “love” chemical, oxytocin plays a role in many different aspects of human – and animal – emotion. Let’s explore the effects of oxytocin on the human person and thus,  why we should care about this neurotransmitter as fundraisers.

How do neurotransmitters actually work?

Technically, your neurotransmitters chemically allow signals to transmit from one neuron to another across your synapses. This neurological process is also how the hormone, oxytocin, releases to the brain. In the broadest sense, human touch and interaction are responsible for the release of this hormonal neurotransmitter.

Though we will be discussing various studies related to oxytocin’s effect on people, the goal is to show how these studies relate to fundraising.

A Study on the Impact of Oxytocin

A Study on the Impact of Oxytocin

A study by Dr. Paul Zak, a scientist and author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, tested a control, medical-research group, who were given an exercise where they were rewarded with money and then administered a placebo. Conversely, the test group did the same exercise and received their monetary reward but were then administered oxytocin.

Both groups were then asked if they wanted to give some of the money they got to charity. The test group with externally introduced oxytocin increased donations to a charity by 57 percent. Though this study utilizes an increased amount of oxytocin than natural, the study proves that naturally produced levels of oxytocin in response to advertising stimuli still result in positive correlations. These increased feelings of positivity produce the same result – though more measured – as the study of inflated charitable giving due to increased levels of oxytocin.

Another Study on the Impact of Oxytocin

Another Study on the Impact of Oxytocin

Another study done by Zak looked at whether or not the proximity to and interaction with a dog (i.e. playing with a dog) increases oxytocin in pet owners but not in non-pet owners. Zak specifically singles out dogs over cats, as he found that proximity to and interaction with a cat does not yield the same results.

A dog owner’s levels of oxytocin do in fact increase by spending time with their pet. In fact, simply making eye contact with your dog will increase oxytocin in the brain. Interestingly, a dog’s oxytocin levels also increase sharply when they play with their owners. Like humans when oxytocin increases in dogs it shows up as increasing trust, liking, calm, and generous behavior.

Fundraising implications: Mailing dog owners pictures of cute dogs is likely to increase oxytocin and thus generosity even if the appeal is not on behalf of animals and even more so if it is.

Additionally, people who maintained a higher degree of eye contact with their dogs also experienced a burst in oxytocin levels. At the start of a relationship, dogs who are submissive do not want eye contact. However, if a dog loves you, he or she will look you in the eye.

As mammals, humans and dogs are both born of a mother, who was also our first dyadic relationship. This relationship revolved around nursing and interacting typified by comfort, a full stomach, warmth, eye contact, and touch. Therefore, it is not surprising that these feelings still resonate with us.


Oxytocin and Charitable Giving

While examining the relationships of dog owners to their pets is fascinating, how does this translate to donor engagement? In his research, Zak found that tactile contact or “touching” primes the brain to oxytocin. This discovery was made by conducting the following study:

Two groups were asked to exchange “lost” money. One had a 15-minute massage prior to the exchange and the other group just waited 15 minutes. The brains of the massaged groups released more oxytocin than those who didn’t receive a massage. This group also then returned 2.5 times as much “lost” money to a stranger as the group who simply waited.

Sarina Saturn, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University, corroborates this research in finding that oxytocin can increase not only through eye contact and trust levels but charitable behavior as well. A rush of oxytocin might sway people toward doing generous acts, including giving to charity.

Oxytocin and Charity

Did you know that 90 percent of choices and decisions every day are made without any conscious thought? For example, by removing the dollar sign on a menu, a restaurant takes away the visual that tells the viewer this is money. In doing so, they remove the trigger to the part of the subconscious brain that stops people from spending money. This practice helps keep the experience more emotional.

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Putting Neurofundraising into Practice

How do these studies on neurotransmitters translate to donor engagement? Using neuroscience to inform your pitch could change the way you think about even the most minute of details.

For instance, are your business cards:

  • Impersonal or personal?
  • Visually interesting?
  • Memorable?
  • Look like thousands of others?
  • Something someone would want to keep?

When it comes to the details, research what works! For example, providing pictures of children to be adopted by monthly donors enhances the responses by allowing the donor to choose a child with whom they resonate the most.

An idea then would be for a major donor fundraiser to have his or her photo on a business card to increase recognition. This feature might make the card more personal, more visually interesting, more memorable, and more unique. Make sure to use a photo in which you have an open, friendly demeanor, so smile! Why should someone keep it? If you include a place for notes on the back, the business card would then be visually appealing and useful to the recipient.

The Importance of First Impressions

Daily, you make snap “first impression” judgments of those around you. At the very base level, these snap decisions about strangers help you to determine who is a friend or foe.

The Importance of First Impressions

Throughout most of the evolutionary development of humans, people lived mostly in small family units or clans and thus knew everyone by sight. Therefore, a judgment based on appearance in a matter of milliseconds determined your safety.

In this initial contact three things occur:

  • Facial recognition occurs in less than .06 seconds.
  • Name recall occurs in less than 1 second.
  • People tend to look at eyes first and hands second.

Based on people’s natural inclinations, how you look, how you dress, and how you approach a donor prospect will be evaluated in as few as three seconds or less. This first impression will be made whether you like it or not!

With such a short window of time to make a first impression, the necessity of a smile becomes imperative. Even a 16-millisecond subliminal image of a smile (or a frown) affects how much people might pay for a drink or cause an unconscious shift in the emotional state of the subjects.

A facial expression contains the power to convey warmth or coolness, openness or caution and signals to the donor prospect whether or not they might trust you. Having good posture, a kempt physical appearance and positive eye contact enables the major gift fundraiser to overcome the limitations of first impressions in order to address the body of their message without misconceptions about them personally.

Implications for Fundraisers

Let’s expand on the imagery of a mother and her newborn baby. What do the vast majority of humans share? The experience of the dyadic relationship with their mother – breastfeeding slows the heart rate in nursing mothers and is thought to help form a bond with their babies. For babies, it provides warm comfort from food and skin to skin contact. For many children, this is beginning of their understanding of the tactile world. As the child focuses on developing his motor skills, he focuses on his mother’s movements.

With this example in mind, let’s examine the art of soliciting a major gift donor.

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Major Donor Solicitation: A Research Study

Salespersons have long talked about the importance of a handshake to sales. Remember how oxytocin researcher Zak has concluded that tactile contact “touching” primes the brain to release oxytocin? The brains of the massaged groups released more oxytocin. That group returned 2.5 times as much “lost” money to a stranger as the control group.

At the same time as the release of oxytocin, dopamine is released in the brain’s reward center thus associating trust with positive rewards. Compassion, generosity, love and related emotions are part of this reward complex.

Major Donor Solicitation
Major Donor Solicitation


How does this relate to solicitation?

Knowing that human touch results in a release of oxytocin, a major gift fundraiser must use this insight cautiously and wisely. A well-executed handshake goes a long way in continuing to make a good impression. However, I would be remiss not to mention that one should be careful with physical contact beyond a professional handshake in a workplace setting.

Another sensory element is wearing cologne. The nose is one of the strongest neurotransmitters of the body. Smells are so inviting that they create positive memories and emotions. Between a strong handshake and smelling pleasant, your first impression will be solidified by engaging these other neurotransmitters to release oxytocin. The following experiments demonstrate how the subconscious of your senses plays a role in decision making. In order to successfully fundraise, you must, therefore, keep these subconscious elements in mind as you convince donor prospect to give you their hard-earned dollars.

Willingness to Compromise Based on Neuroscience

Willingness to Compromise Based on Neuroscience

A study by a major gift solicitation often resembles a difficult negotiation situation. To set up for success, a study showed that people in hard chairs mimicked their comfort level and took hard positions; conversely, people in soft chairs took soft positions. The same result happened if you hand them something hard or soft.

Softness is associated with compassion, giving, cooperation, collaboration. This also translates to variability in voice. Therefore, a louder voice is easier to hear if keeping a consistent volume while varying your pitch to convey passion. Even though these elements comprise a surface level, a physical awareness of how you present yourself will ensure a continued good impression.


The Weighted Resume

Impressions continued: The Weighted Resume

First impressions go a long way, but a donor prospect’s opinions are constantly being shaped. To prove this point, I wish to highlight a study where a group of people was given a resume on 24lb-paper while another group was given the same resume on 18 lb. paper.

When asked about a candidate, the test group with the heavier paper saw the candidate as more serious. People psychologically react to subtle cues other than basic rationale. Now think about how you create donor proposals, how they’re printed, etc. It isn’t about the words or the piece of paper – it’s about the relationship. It’s about you and the impression you create.


What You, as a Fundraiser, Should Take Away

Most people’s initial reaction to a solicitor is to distrust, back away, find flaws and omit information. A donor prospect is in danger of entering a hyper-calculation mode where trust has no place. The best way, therefore, to make a pitch is to not make it a pitch – don’t try to sell, but explain, educate and empathize.

Through storytelling, you appeal to emotion while fact-giving appeals to logic. A major gift solicitation is not about data; it’s about people. Be careful not to send mixed messages if you plan to use facts. The danger of conflating complex, logical information with your story is if any of it is perceived to be wrong, the entire message is destroyed.


The “Ladder of Engagement”

The “Ladder of Engagement” refers to how if you take one tiny step, you’re most likely to take the next step. Every step is a step toward a deeper relationship.

In this experiment, homeowners asked if they would put a “Drive Safely” sign in their lawn. Only 17 percent said they would.

Some people said they’d rather put a sticker in their window than put a sign in their lawn – These people were asked 2 weeks later if they would be willing to put a sign in their lawn, and they grew from 17 percent to 76 percent.

Another version of this experiment was when homeowners were asked if 5 or 6 people could come into their home and go through their closet. Out of the entire group, only 22 percent said “yes”. Then, the homeowners were asked if they would be willing to partake in a survey about how they organize their closet. People who agreed to the survey were then asked if their closet could be searched. The percentage then grew from 22 percent to 56 percent.

These examples serve to illustrate the point of neurofundraising: Donor prospects will be more likely to engage with you if you’re offering something of value to them and organically building upon your good first impression.


The End Goal: Donor Centricity

In sum, you should strive to understand fundraising in terms of natural human tendencies in order to better cultivate the relationship with the donor. Major gift fundraisers must always remember: Donors don’t give to charities – donors give to missions. It’s not about you and the organization you represent – you are a conduit. Donors seek solutions to real-world problems that relate to them.

You are a means to an end – a “vehicle” of the mission. Make your approach personal and thoughtful, and your organization will reap the benefits of having enthusiastic, long-term supporters.

Geoffrey W. Peters

Author Profile and Additional Resources

Geoffrey W. Peters, CEO, Moore DM Group

Geoff is an internationally recognized expert in fundraising using many channels. His teaching credentials include more than eleven years of teaching at the graduate school level, presentations at more than 100 continuing education programs.

He is Past-President of the Direct Marketing Association of Washington and was a Board Member of the AFP-DC Metropolitan Chapter. He has served as Vice-Chair of the DMA-Nonprofit Federation and has been awarded the Max Hart Award as well as the DMA-Nonprofit Federation’s Public Service Award for his various volunteer efforts on behalf of the nonprofit community. He has twice been cited by the Nonprofit Times as one of the 50 most influential leaders in the nonprofit sector in the United States and by Fundraising Success as one of the top ten men in fundraising in the US. He has received the George T. Holloway award for public service from the National Catholic Development Conference.

Learn more about Geoff Peters’ work on Neurofundraising visit 


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