The Ultimate Donation Page Course

The Brain Science Behind Online Giving

In this lesson we’re going to focus on something very important to connecting with donors online.


No, we’re not post-apocalyptic zombies hungry for your gray matter. To really succeed in fundraising, you need to understand the basic motivations for giving, and how the inner workings of the mind can affect how we receive and interpret messages.

Bonus: Understanding these psychological principles will help you become a smarter fundraiser, plus you’ll become a better marketer, colleague, and an all-around-amazing human dynamo of making stuff happen. Score!

In today’s lesson, you’ll:

  • Learn the main reasons donors give to causes
  • Understand what peer pressure has to do with online giving
  • Find out how storytelling can help you raise more money

 Why the brain matters in giving

I have a confession.

The truth is, we’ve been talking about brains all throughout this course so far.

The emotional pull of photos. The reason we’re primed to give more when we see suggested giving amounts. The love of all things pleasing to the eye. All of these behaviors can be traced back to research on how the brain works. But why do donors give in the first place? And how can we use this to encourage them to give when they’re on our websites and donation pages?

Let’s journey to the center of the mind to understand the psychology of giving.

Here’s what we know:

Giving is personal.

In the Money for Good study, respondents indicated that the top to reasons to give to causes were due to either a personal tie to the organization (or fundraiser) or personal experience with the cause or work of the organization.

Giving is an emotional act.
The Donor Experience Guide from Crown Philanthropic Solutions cites, “The act of giving is an expression of gratitude and a search for meaning, which in turn leads to happiness. In a series of studies at the University of California, people categorized as “grateful” reported feeling 25 percent more happiness and energy—and 20 percent less envy and resentment—than ungrateful people. Americans want to be happy. And they expect their experiences with philanthropy to help get them there.”

To take this a step further, Yale researcher David Rand found that people participating in a series of experiments were most generous when they made quick decisions about how much to give or when they were prompted to remember a time when emotion had guided them to a good decision. When people were given more time to think—and asked to recall times when emotional decisions didn’t turn out well—they gave less.

The more you make people stop and think, the less they give.

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought we were talking about brains and brains are notorious for, well, thinking.” True, but our brains are also responsible for our instinctive reactions, as well as our emotional selves. Check out this map of the brain:

In reality, fundraisers often tap into more than one of these regions of our minds to help inspire giving. Here’s how it might work for your cause…

To reach the thinking brain: Show your charity’s ratings, financial reports, and a clear breakdown of of where the money goes. For those trying to make a rational assessment of a charitable “investment”, these are the things they’re looking for.To reach the instinctual brain: Underscore what might happen if a donor doesn’t give. What will they miss out on or what might be lost if you don’t receive their contribution? Appealing to this sense of “loss aversion” helps to tap into this “reptilian brain.”

To reach the feeling brain: Connect with the underlying emotions of giving. Remember what motivates giving and appeal to these feelings to help open up your donors’ generous spirit and desire to help. Emotions are very powerful things and can trigger those personal connections that we know prompt most charitable acts. Create an experience rich with examples and photos to immerse your donor in the stories of your work.

Depending on your cause and your target audience, you may want to vary the methods you choose to get your message across, but keep in mind that without that emotional pull, you might be sabotaging your own fundraising efforts.

All of this considered, people often say they want to be objective and focus their help on the severity of suffering rather than emotional reactions.

Is that even possible?

Researchers implemented several scenarios aimed at shifting giving from emotion to reason, including a “cooling off” period before donors give and asking people to be more mindful of the influence of their personal beliefs. None of these efforts had much impact on changing behavior, and these acts tended to hamper giving.

Tip: When designing your donation page, keep in mind why donors give and speak to those motivations.

What’s the deal with social proof?

Like most creatures, humans are affected by peer pressure. It’s like gravity. Whether we’re thinking about it or not, it’s there exerting its force upon us. But it’s not all bad. Social cues help us make decisions and can let us know right from wrong. We’re heavily influenced by our family, friends, and even those we perceive to be our peers. This is why we trust a local restaurant review on Yelp more than a corporate commercial. It turns out, donors are also influenced by these same social cues when making decisions about charitable giving.

So, if you’re promoting a cause don’t forget the power of peers. This is also called “social proof.”

Here are two ways to make this work for your cause:

Show who’s supporting you.
When people are thinking of giving to your organization, they want to know they can trust you and that you’ll put their money to good work. There’s nothing like an endorsment from someone they feel they can trust to help reinforce this idea of credibility and transparency. Make this work on your donation page by including testimonials from other donors or beneficiaries who can attest to your impact. An endorsement or quote from a respected official, related organization, or community group can have the same effect.

Finally, don’t forget to show off any ratings or seals from places like GuideStar or Charity Navigator to show prospective donors others are willing to vouch for your work.

Show you’re making progress.
Donors want to be on a winning team. You can illustrate that you have momentum (and support from others) by adding a ticker that counts how many donors have given to your cause or with a donation thermometer that illustrates your progress toward a goal.

A word of warning, though: Don’t attempt to show off before you have made some progress. Studies have shown that empty thermometers or tickers can backfire and depress giving. Wait until you’ve gained some steam, then turn these features on to encourage donors to boost you over the finish line.

To-do:  Take inventory of your organization’s testimonials or online ratings. Pick the best one to include on your donation page. Don’t have any of these? Make it your mission to get this done in the next 30 days.

How storytelling can help you raise more money

The best way to get people to relate and react to your cause is through story. Compelling stories help people remember and connect with your mission. From a very young age we were taught to communicate and learn through storytelling. Stories have a very familiar format and can help us open up our emotional pathways as we visualize what is being communicated. Think about it—when’s the last time you opened up emotionally because of a daily financial briefing? If we want to really change the world and advance our causes, we must embrace the power of storytelling.

Deborah Small, Wharton marketing and psychology professor, says:

“The more vivid the story – through narrative or through imagery – the more emotionally arousing. Emotions are what triggers the impetus to help. The more surprising finding is that showing statistics can actually blunt this emotional response by causing people to think in a more calculative, albeit uncaring, manner.”

Stories can help tap into emotion, but they also go a long way in making your cause more transparent and relatable. This is because a good story typically focuses on a very specific person, place, or thing. Telling a story really requires us to zoom in on a scene and bring it to life for our donors. Here’s why this matters:

  1. Donors are skeptical and need reassurance. Being specific about what happens with donations lets donors know they can trust you.
  2. Tangibility underscores that a donation will make a difference. Donors want to know they can effect change, not just be a drop in the bucket of an insurmountable problem.
  3. Being concrete makes people relate more. People have a stronger emotional response to individuals or specific situation, which makes them more generous.

This is often referred to as the “singularity effect” or “identifiable victim” effect. You want to be able to describe your problem—and the results of your work—at a scale that your donors can understand. Start with a simple story about how one person is affected by your work to see how powerful this can be.

Tip: To really connect with your donors, focus on telling a story throughout your fundraising campaign and echo that story on your donation page with photos and a related call to action.

Does all this brain science have you a little spooked?

Researcher Daniel Oppenheimer, co-editor of The Science of Giving, urges nonprofits to think of it this way: “Crafting solicitations that appeal to human psychology can feel manipulative at times, which is why it’s important to remember people really do want to give. They like giving; it makes them happy; it provides meaning. When we help people give, we’re not just assisting charities and the causes that receive the money—we’re also helping the donors.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Giving is a personal and emotional act. Make sure your donation page reflects this.
  • Showing that others support your cause gives you credibility with donors.
  • A relatable story can help you connect with donors and inspire more giving.

You’re really working that donation page, now! Tell the world:


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