I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak at fundraising conferences and seminars all over North America. I’ve spoken about social media, legacy giving, fundraising basics, storytelling and, my current favourite topic, the psychology of giving. For someone who grew up painfully shy, and who is a classic introvert, I’ve come to embrace and be passionate about these opportunities.

But last month I had the chance to speak from a completely different point of view: I spoke as a donor, not as a fundraiser.

Trent University is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and as part of those celebrations, they held a wrap up event to their highly successful legacy campaign (they conducted a legacy campaign using capital campaign tactics… pure brilliance). As an alumna, bequest donor, and someone who knows a little bit about philanthropy, I was asked to be the keynote speaker.

Here’s the story that I shared:

“Almost 30 years ago, I was a very different person than I am now (aren’t we all?). I’d barely managed to graduate high school, I was shy… I had little self-confidence. All of the universities that I’d applied to had turned me down, to say nothing of the Ivy League schools that, in a clearly foolish moment, I’d also applied to.

At that time, and perhaps still, most of those Ivy League schools set up personal interviews with all applicants. Imagine my humiliation, with my 58% average, sitting down to an interview with Harvard knowing there was no chance at all I could get in. I don’t remember the exact words that were said, but I’m left with the impression of this imposing older academic looking at me and saying…. “Seriously?”

After all that, I was feeling pretty broken and even less self-confident. To be honest, I was thinking I wasn’t smart enough to go to university.

But then a family friend came along and said, “I know the deadline for applications has passed, but I think you could still get a meeting with the folks at Trent.”

Because Trent was like that.

Trent was willing to sit down with me, get to know me a bit, and they must have seen some potential because next thing I knew, I was driving down highway 7 between Ottawa and Peterborough with my suitcases in the back. I was going to Trent.

That first year was transformational for me: the small class size and the professors who really cared were a revelation. They encouraged me and they taught me to think. I distinctly remember a moment in a history class taught by Professor Shelagh Grant during my first year. Her enthusiasm for history was contagious and I remember her assigning us to read two books on the same subject by two different authors.

We were to learn about the authors and then think about how they interpreted that particular piece of history through their different lenses. A light bulb went off for me: I looked at reading and learning in a whole new light after that. It had never occurred to me to question what I was reading (that certainly wasn’t encouraged in grade school).

I’d learned to truly think and form my own opinion.

Jump ahead to four years later. I’d just graduated from Trent and there I was sitting on a plane on my way to do a Masters at Cambridge University, after having been accepted to almost every single school I’d applied to for further studies. A small part of me was terrified. But a bigger part of me knew that Trent had prepared me well.

People often say to me, “wow, you went to Cambridge?” with a certain look of awe. My response, every single time, is “Yes, and it was an amazing experience: I made lifelong friends, and I travelled extensively… I lived in history…. But, academically, it can’t hold a candle to Trent.”

It’s the absolute truth.

A few months ago, I decided to make a bequest to Trent. It was an incredibly easy decision: Trent had changed my life. Trent is a huge part of my personal story and I would love nothing more than to give others that life-changing opportunity.

But I think I also have a bit of a unique perspective when I’m deciding to make a gift like this. You see, I’m a partner at a major fundraising consulting firm in Canada. Every day, I have the pleasure of working with non-profits helping them to grow their legacy giving programs, and I speak at conferences around North America on how to touch your donors’ hearts, and inspire them, through storytelling (here I should make clear that Trent is not one of my clients, nor has it ever been).

So let me share a few things I’ve learned along the way about philanthropy and what inspires us to give.

First, philanthropy comes from the heart. People give when their emotions are engaged. Decisions are activated by the unconscious part of our brain, called the limbic system. The rational part only comes into play afterwards to justify our decision.

Second, giving makes us happy. A study by social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn of UBC, has shown that wealth does not necessarily make people happier. People who give to charity, or spend money on people other than themselves, are much happier than people who spend all their money on themselves.

Third, giving makes us live longer. Another study shows giving reduces the odds of an early death by nearly 60% compared with those who didn’t lend a helping hand.

Put simply, those of us who give live happier and longer lives.

Fourth, some really interesting things happen in your brain when you make a donation. A couple of U.S. researchers at Texas Tech University used brain scans as people made giving decisions and here’s what they found out:

  • Bequest giving and current giving stimulate different parts of the brain.
  • Making a charitable bequest decision involves the internal visualization system, specifically those parts of the brain engaged for recalling autobiographical events
  • This research offers scientific evidence that “the donor’s own story matters most to the donor.”  Decision-making about bequests is about autobiographical connections, not numbers, such as taxes, or even the needs of the charity

So, is it any wonder that we’re all here today celebrating this amazing Legacy Campaign? Trent has been a huge part of our lives. It is part of our personal story, and we can’t help but look at today’s students, some of whom are with us in this room, and feel a warmth in our hearts.

They’re just setting out on their life journeys. Who knows what amazing things they’ll accomplish?

But, based on our own experience, we know that Trent will nurture them, teach them how to think, and turn them into wonderful human beings full of self-confidence.

Our legacy gifts help make that happen.

Perhaps our gift leads to a scholarship that means one less promising student has to drop out because they’ve maxed out their credit cards and student loans.

Perhaps our gift will help build that badly needed lab where some day in the future, a student is going to make a brilliant discovery that will lead to a softer human footprint on our environment.

Perhaps our gift will even mean that the next time one of our loved ones is hospitalized, and we’re upset and emotional, a Trent-Fleming trained nurse, having been trained to use the latest techniques and technologies, will help ease our fears.

What an incredible feeling it is for all of us who have made a legacy gift to Trent  to know that we will have an impact, and create happy stories, long after we’re gone.

Thank you.”

So what’s my takeaway from this special speaking gig? Donors like me are passionate about the causes they support and we will step up to the plate when asked to do a little more. Whether that’s by giving more, sharing our story, or being advocates for the cause, we should never hesitate to engage donors.

What will you do today to harness some of that passion?

This post was written by Leah Eustace, ACFRE, former Principal and Chief Idea Goddess at Good Works.