The Secrets to Creating Meaningful Bonds: Promoting Social Connection and Valuable Experiences

I spend a lot of time in airports and on planes.  They are interesting places to observe human behavior.  Traveling is a pretty common activity for many development officers and certainly for consultants. 

I try to use the time productively.  One of the things I’ve begun doing is focusing on observing human behavior.  Emotions run the gamut.  Try it the next time you’re in an airport. 

One of the things you’ll see is how peoples' faces light up when they see their family or friends walk through the security area.  Or, when they connect at baggage claim, or at curbside pick up. People light up, no matter the time of day.  And, they start telling stories.... stories about the flight, the challenge to park, or maybe about a special family event.

In his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Dr. Michael Lieberman talks about the overwhelming drive that we humans have, deep in our brain’s wiring, to connect with one another.  That wiring also allows us to have empathy for others and anticipate their needs.  Dr. Lieberman and his associates have imaged the brain and found that the “social cognition network” and the deep need for human connection, which our brains drive us toward, also promote happiness and good feelings.[1]

Other research studies into happiness and the role of money, confirm that meaningful experiences go a lot further in promoting happiness and social connection than material goods.  According to a study cited in The Wall Street Journalwhen research participants were asked to reflect back on their material purchases versus experiences, it was experiences that provided a greater value.  People remember the experiences longer and think more positively about them.  Yes, the material purchase may give a momentary thrill, but later those same belongings are just taken for granted.  We adapt to them.  “Experiences, on the other hand, tend to meet more of our underlying psychological needs", says Professor Thomas Gilovich of UCLA.  "They’re often shared with other people, giving us a greater sense of connection, and they form a bigger part of our sense of identity.”[2]

Professor Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia further supports these studies with ones that go a few steps more with respect to philanthropy.  In analyzing data with economists across 100 different countries, from Uganda to South Africa to Canada, Dr. Dunn found that people were even happier when giving money away to charities.  The effects were the same in wealthy countries and as in poor ones.[3]  Interestingly, it was not the amount given that contributed as much to ones happiness, as the understanding of the impact the gift was making on others’ lives.

So, think about this in your own life.  When it comes to experiences or material things, what gives you the greatest joy?

In my own life, it may be the memorable experience of snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands with my fiancé.  Swimming in the neighborhood pool with my grandson, or a trip to a museum with my sons bring a lot more joy than a recently purchased chair, no matter how much I love the chair.  More recently, that happiness involved a material item that evokes the strong connection with my late mother and many wonderful experiences with her and others.  Playing the piano I inherited from my mom reminds me of our many experiences together and our deep family connections around that piano. 

So, now, let’s apply these same findings about experiences and the drive for social connection to our work with the people who are making major philanthropic investments in your organization. 

    Essential Elements of a Successful Major Gift

    Essential Elements of a Successful Major Gift

Remember, there are many factors that contribute to significant or transformative gifts:  shared vision, deep belief in the organization and its leaders, and an abiding empathy for the impact on the people’s lives affected by the institution, to name a few. 

Strong and enduring bonds help to ensure that you and others in your organization connect in meaningful ways with your philanthropic investors.  Meaningful bonds also ensure that your donors stay connected to people throughout your institution even through the ups and downs of economic storms or institutional change.

Below are six of my top ten tips for creating meaningful bonds with your donors that promote social connection and meaningful experiences. (For my first four tips, see my August 2, 2016 blog,  “The Secrets to Creating Meaningful Bonds:  What Does Research Tell Us? ”)

1.     Help donors understand the impact of their gift on your campaign, a project,  and the institution through experiences at your institutions and connections with the people benefited.  This seems self-evident, but I have found in the press of our work this important step can frequently be overlooked.

  • Plan opportunities for donors to visit your institution, and meet with the people who are the recipients of their donations, or are putting the philanthropy to work.  The best opportunities are small, intimate ones that invite substantive conversation and engage the donors in Q&A.
  • Demonstrate progress against the goal or the project through meaningful experiences and special opportunities at your institution.  For instance, the dedication of a new wing of a building; awarding a scholarship to a recipient; or a social event, hosted by the donor.  Is there a Return on the Investment that can be demonstrated? (Susan’s favorite:  lab tours with scientists that show how philanthropy has led to other grant support! What’s unique to your institution?)

2.     Identify the types of experiences that are most meaningful to your donors. Begin by evaluating what is most meaningful for the donor.  Ask your Development Committee for their recommendations on high impact experiences at your institution. Then, assess: 

  • Are these experiences available for your donors?
  • If not, who needs to be involved in creating them?
  • Remember, good communication is central to meaningful experiences.  Communication that is personal is the most powerful in creating bonds with major donors.

3.     Promote peer interactions!  Many donors and Board members value the opportunity to "rub elbows" with others in the community or from their business circles.  For example, make sure peer interactions are being fostered before, after or in between meetings at your institution.  This could be through a reception or dinner hosted by a Board member. 

  • Create opportunities for your Board and Development Committee to share stories about their gifts and their impact.  This will probably best be done in conjunction with others at the institution and should be rehearsed in advance.

4.     Identify and create experiences at your institution that promote social connections with people in your organization. Whether cultivation or stewardship events, there need to be times to get donors and prospects together without an ask.  

  •  ”Lunch and Learn" with the President has recently been employed by one of our clients.  Its a great time to invite prospects, donors, Board members and others to meet with the President, hear about the plans afoot and meet with the faculty making it happen.
  • Similar to campaign "leadership briefings", recruit Board members and other donors to host a social event for major donors with common areas of interests.  Invite key stakeholders in the organization to attend.

5.     Conduct an internal assessment to identify your best connectors with major donors.  Who does the best job telling your story? Who forms deep connections with others'? Is is your CEO, some of the Executive Staff, Board Members, Faculty or Program Staff?  Look for the hidden gems.  There is value in creating connections across the institution.

6.     Create partnerships with your deep connectors and  “deputize” them as a part of your team.  Not only does this expand your lean fundraising team, creating partnerships will go a long way in elevating your philanthropic culture.

  • Help your deputized team understand the importance of their role as a “connector”  to the institution and relationship builder.
  •  Coach and train your partners.
  • Give specific assignments to your team, remembering, strategy is king!
  • Manage the follow up with your “deputized” team!

Undoubtedly, your organization or institution has numerous opportunities that can provide meaningful experiences and social connections with your major constituents.  However, it is up to the development staff to capture these with the help of others in the institution.  We challenge you to set aside one staff meeting every quarter with the executive team and the development team to assess your best opportunities.

Melissa Paul, Chief Development Officer and Anna Murnane, Campaign Director, Mass. Eye and Ear

Melissa Paul, Chief Development Officer and Anna Murnane, Campaign Director, Mass. Eye and Ear

Pictured here are two of my friends from Mass. Eye and Ear, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School.  The Mass. Eye and Ear team has done a great job of creating deep donor connections and meaningful experiences with the help of their physician partners.  The results are larger gifts than ever and a new philanthropic culture, to name just a couple. Their work will be featured in a session at the upcoming AHP International Conference in Chicago on October 28, 2016.  We hope you will join us!

Good luck and happy connecting!

*For the other four tips, see my August 2, 2016 blog,  “The Secrets to Creating Meaningful Bonds:  What Does Research Tell Us? ”


[1] Social:  Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Michael D. Lieberman, 2013. 

[2] “Can Money Buy You Happiness?”,  by Andrew Blackman, The Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2014.

[3] “Can Money Buy You Happiness?”,  by Andrew Blackman, The Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2014.