Wired to Connect: Are There Lessons for Philanthropy?

According to Matthew Lieberman, a social cognitive neuroscientist, we are wired to connect with others—family, friends, society.[1]  In fact, connecting socially is a really strong need that comes straight from our brains!  Dr. Lieberman and his associates make a very convincing case that our human brains are wired to connect with other people.  This  hunger to connect help to ensure the very existence of civilizations and cohesive societies all because we feel a great need to be socially connected.  In fact, if things go awry in these social connections, we can be pretty miserable and, according to Lieberman, will focus on little else until the connection is fixed.

Apparently, the famous Anglican preacher, Henry Melvill, was espousing the same concepts back in 1985 when he lectured, “We cannot live only by ourselves.  A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”  This is all pretty strong stuff.

The findings and discoveries  made over the past two decades in this new field of social cognitive neuroscience provide important clues to understanding human behavior.  What allows us to empathize with others and try to see their perspectives?  How are humans wired to begin to understand very early in life what’s going on in other people’s minds?  The explorations into Mirror Neurons, described by Vilayanur Ramachandran in a Tedtalk [2] and “mentalizing”, the brain’s social network system that helps us imagine what other people are thinking or feeling so that we can anticipate and understand their actions and hopefully adapt accordingly[3]are fascinating discoveries into human behavior.

So, what lessons, if any, does this new field of social cognitive neuroscience have to offer to us in the philanthropy world?  A lot, I think!  The world of fundraising can be an interesting study of human behavior.

First, just understanding the strong thirst that is generated by our brain’s wiring to be socially connected to others is extraordinarily relevant.  In a recent blog, I talked about the associations between happiness, happy experiences and giving.  According to Lieberman and his colleagues, the need to be connected is basic, right down to brain structures.

Throughout my career, I have seen how adept development officers are the connectors, bridging donors and institutions—connecting people.  In fact, sometimes, good development officers are connectors within their own institutions! (How many times have you, Development Officer, set out on a fact finding mission while developing a major gift proposal only to find that two key members of a potential project may not even know each other!  Then, you introduce them and set about creating a new partnership between these two and a great project an proposal results!)

Good development officers tend to be great dot connectors and great facilitators of connections between people.  This is a skill that needs to be honed among the major gift development staff, and probably worthy of conversations at staff meetings and in training. 

           Photo Credit:    Steve Wilsion 

          Photo Credit: Steve Wilsion 

I remember fairly early in my career during a meeting between a major prospect  and a scientist, the prospect, who happened to be a very articulate guy, turned to me and said, “Susan, now I get it.  You connect the dots.  You’re a great connector.  You understand how to put people together.”  I have to confess, I really didn’t know what to think about this at the time.  I suddenly had a new job title:  “Major Dot Connector”.  Hummmm.  Well, I felt a lot better about my new title when we received a very substantial gift that allowed the scientist to pursue a new line of investigation and the donor to pursue a dream.  Suddenly, I really liked being a dot connector of people and programs that would hopefully make a positive impact on society and medicine.  And, I started looking around for how I could be a better connector.  This was fun; it was fulfilling.  It made me feel good, the donor felt great, and the recipients at the institution were delighted and had the funds to purse a new line of investigation! 

                    Photo Credit: John Hain

                    Photo Credit: John Hain

One of the foundations of bridging or connecting people is empathy: caring for others, understanding what motivates them, or in turn, what turns them off.  Lieberman also talks about the “mentalizing network of the brain, that “allows us to peer inside the minds of those around us, take into account their hopes, fears goals, and intentions, and as a result interact with them much more effectively.” [4]  Although we have this capacity, Lieberman points out that it is rarely used well. The major gift giving process is more than a financial transaction; it’s a transformation of one’s perspective and a strong connection between people. In the best situations, major gifts, or philanthropic investments, form important bonds.  Really good development officers understand how to cultivate and nurture these bonds through empathy and analysis, and perhaps have a natural tendency towards mentalizing. Do they also help satisfy that hunger to connect that we are wired for?  It’s worth considering and developing.

Here are a few ideas to think about when it comes to social connections and philanthropy:

1.     Think about how you can become a great "dot connector", internally and externally.  Are you identifying the dots and looking for the lines between them?

    Photo Credit:  Sebastiaan ter Burg   

    Photo Credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg 

2.     Are there others on the team who can help partner with you to make those connections?  Perhaps your CEO, Board chair, program leader, or faculty member are able partners or partners you can develop. Partners are critical in the connection process and help to expand the potential connections.

3.     Consider your organization and your natural constituency.  Now, go another step or two further and consider how best to connect. If your organization is a hospital, an obvious constituency is your patients, specifically grateful patients.  Now, think one step beyond that natural constituency which you are hopefully working with well.  What about people who have identified the type of care or research conducted at your hospital as a field of interest for their philanthropy?  Even if they are not immediately affiliated with you, a Board member, a physician or scientist, or a campaign committee member may be able to make an introduction and partner with you in connecting the dots.  They are important partners in building bonds and important social connections.

4.     Finally, you can’t just be a good connector.  No matter how motivated our brains are to connect with others, you have to be a great closer.  Or, you have to be able to partner with others who can close the deal.  This is where calling upon all of your analytical skills and mentalizing network, as described by Dr. Lieberman,[5] to understand the intentions and motivations of your prospect is crucial to the close.  

More on closing and building social connections in our next blog!

Wired to Connect References