Meaningful Giving: Building Happy Experiences

Last year, I wrote a blog about the connections between “Happiness, Giving and Healthy Living”.  That blog was in large part the result of one donor’s story to me, early in my career, about the joy she received from her giving.  It was very personal.  Her story significantly changed how I thought about fundraising and development.  Since that time, more than twenty-five years ago, science has learned a lot about the connection between acts of generosity and happiness [1].

Recent scientific studies by psychologists, neurologists, and economists are showing something very important: we are hardwired to enjoy giving.  Not only that, experiences give people more happiness, especially over the long run, than material things.  

 Photo Credit: Massachusetts Eye and Ear

 Photo Credit: Massachusetts Eye and Ear

In the fundraising industry, we use a lot of data, deep research and even predictive modeling to design the best approaches to major donors. But, I wonder: how many times do we also consider the meaning and happiness  that a philanthropic investment will bring to donors’ lives? And, will this impact a donor's connection with an institution?  

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of meaningful experiences.  In a 2013 Forbes article, behavioral scientists discuss how money makes people happier— when money is invested in “buying experiences” versus things [2]. Can philanthropy also create happy experiences and provide more meaning to our lives? Absolutely!

          Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

          Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

According to studies, people of all socioeconomic statuses gain more happiness spending money on others [1]. Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, author of "Happy Money, the Science of Smarter Spending", demonstrated this with her popular case study in which individuals were prompted to spend money, or reflect on an instance when they spent money on others or on themselves. The studies were done in Canada, The United States, and Uganda.  People spent money on everything from food and flowers for loved ones to medicine for a sick friend. The results consistently showed that the participants were significantly happier when spending money on others [4]. And, this happiness was longer lasting!  When money is spent on personal and material goods our satisfaction exponentially drops as more time passes. When money is spent on experiences and charitable acts, our satisfaction exponentially rises as time moves forward [1].

                 Photo Credit: Jon Kent

                 Photo Credit: Jon Kent

Professor Dunn remarked, “What moves the needle in terms of happiness is not so much the dollar amount you give, but the perceived impact of your donation.” When donors give they are investing in an idea. The idea that they contributed to making the world a better place.

The scientific research suggests that development officers would be well served to carefully consider how donors' philanthropic experiences at their institutions also generate happiness!  The next step is to consider how they can magnify those experiences and build closer connections.

Every donor should feel deep in their bones that their donation is pivotal and will truly make a difference.  That difference could be leading the way for a new treatment or cure, making it possible to recruit a star faculty who will lead a new promising program, or, it may mean helping to build a new hospital wing.    

So, beside the sheer altruism of appreciating the impact of one’s gift, what can development officers do to make sure that the “happiness experience” connected to a gift is magnified?

In large part, this is where stewardship comes in…. that part of development programs that unfortunately tend to be overlooked more than any other area. 

A recent study at Yale showed that publicizing donors and donations, especially high profile donors and transformative gifts, increased general participation and raised the average donation amount to campaigns [5].  According to the study conducted by Dean Karlan, professor of economics at Yale, and partner John A. List, “Publicizing donations gives donors a sense of recognition and competition, but it is also tangible reassurance that his or her donation was significant. It is vital to publicize major gifts and high profile donors." Some call it the "halo effect."  Lead gifts generate trust and reassurance in a campaign's worthiness and even the management of the funds.

This creates a win-win situation. As you are hopefully creating happy moments for your donors by appropriately acknowledging and publicizing their gift, you will also be elevating the sights of others.

There are many steps you can take to increase the happiness experience connected with a gift. Here are a few ideas to consider as you build those happy experiences, create deeper meaning and enhance connections with major donors:

                  Photo Credit: Jon Kent

                Photo Credit: Jon Kent

1.     Have a heart to heart conversation with your donor (if you have not already!) about the importance of the gift in the donor's life. Make sure you understand what is most important so you can help create happy experiences. This is where being a good listener is critical. This conversation will be more about the heart than the head and will be a great resource for a future donor story.  It  is also critical to understanding how you can help maximize the impact of the gift, for the institution and for the donor!

2.     Help your donors understand that their gift can be a lever to influencing others’ interest and commitment.  Give them the opportunity to tell their story and explain the impetus for the gift.  This is great material for you to use in your publicity about the gift.  Re-telling the story also rekindles their good feelings about making the gift.

3.     Some donors are very concerned about appearing “boastful” about their gift, especially in the South where I live.  But, if they will agree to provide a robust list of family and friends to invite to a celebration event, they can share their happiness with others, magnifying the experience.  In addition to great stewardship, a celebratory event may even open the opportunity for others to participate.  Ask the donors to retell their story of their gift at the event and what it means to them.

4.     Make sure that the person at the institution who are closest to the donor  personally calls to thank them for the gift, whether it's the President, a faculty member, or a board member.  Arm the caller with specific stories about the impact the gift is making, or will make.  Being genuine is important!

              Photo Credit:   Markus Spiske

              Photo Credit: Markus Spiske

5.     Finally, and most importantly, major donors needs to hear from the people who are benefitting from the gift.  Small personal or one-on-one meetings are the best when the opportunity to begin building a bond occurs.  Everyone leaves feeling happy knowing that this gift is truly meaningful to the institution and the donor!

As you are magnifying the happiness experience of your donors, don’t forget the power of stewardship!

Works Cited