I’ve always thought of myself much more as the jock type than the geek type. But, I’ll confess to you that when it comes to neuroscience, I’m turning into a complete brain-nerd.

Now, I’ve been digging inside the donor’s head for a decade now, striving to understand how the bequest decision gets made – and why donors ultimately make legacy gifts to charities. I probably know more about this stuff than your average fundraiser – but recently I came across a post that pinged a EUREKA moment in my brain.

Simon Trevelyan is probably the legacy gift thinker/fundraiser that I have the most respect for in Canada. He’s a bright and thoughtful guy who, like me, believes deeply in starting with the donor. Not long ago, Simon sent out a blog post quoting some research that brought it all into focus.

According to a study by Dr. Russell N. James at Texas Tech University, donors use a DIFFERENT PART of their brain when making bequest decisions than when making other types of charitable gifts. Now, I encourage you to read his abstract – but I’m going to take the liberty of putting his findings into my own words.

When we make a charitable gift, we do it from the part of the brain that’s empathetic. That is, we identify with the subject of the need – the cancer patient, the abandoned puppy, the refugee in Darfur or the homeless guy downtown. We imagine what it would be like to walk in their shoes, we feel their suffering – and then we give to ease that pain. This much is pretty obvious I hope.

But, the bequest gift comes from a very different cranial place. It comes from our internal autobiography channel.

This part of the brain isn’t focused on others – it’s focused on the self. More specifically, it relates to the autobiographies we’ve written in our own minds. We all have some sort of life narrative in our heads (and this story gets more rich and detailed as we age). This narrative is our existential explanation if you like. It gives us our reason for being. It justifies our beliefs and values. It defines the meaning and purpose to our lives. (There are chapters about beliefs and meaning/purpose in 3D Philanthropy if you’d like to go deeper into this.

The donor isn’t making the bequest decision out of empathy (that’s already been established in their previous loyal giving). The donor makes a bequest decision more to further define his or her own life story.

So, what does this mean to you the fundraiser?

Here are a few tips based on my experience that you might find helpful:

  1. Make sure that your copywriting or conversation stays squarely focused on the donor. The word ‘you’ should be used a LOT more than ‘we’, ‘I’ or ‘they’.
  2. Talk specifically about the donor’s beliefs and values. The important things they learned from their parents. The moral compass that directs their life decisions.
  3. Speak deliberately about how this type of gift gives many people a deeper feeling of meaning and life purpose. That it amplifies the donor’s ‘self-brand’ as a decent, kind and loving soul.
  4. You should definitely speak about the cause in a way that connects it to the donor at that deeper beliefs/values level. For example; “People who make bequests to the Downtown Mission are those who just can’t turn away when they see another who is truly suffering.”
  5. I’d talk about the ‘exclusive few’. By that I mean something like; “Thousands of people will send us a small donation at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but only the deeply humanitarian few will leave a legacy to ease the pain for a generation to come.”

My last tip?  Don’t be afraid to get a little syrupy. You can use language with an older audience that Gen Xers would probably scoff at. Some inspirational prose will work beautifully here – where it would sound goofy in your new year renewal letter.

So try these tips out and let me know how they work for you. I’m always eager to learn more!