Using Your Head & Your Heart in Philanthropy

This is my latest column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find an archive of my past columns here.

Making Charitable Appeals to Donors’ Hearts and Heads
December 10, 2009 | Link to Chronicle of Philanthropy

A growing number of nonprofit experts are urging donors to channel more of their money to high-performing organizations, with the goal of making philanthropy more effective.

But embedded in this movement is a worrisome concept  — the idea that donors should give with their heads instead of their hearts. In fact, this is a false dichotomy and one that threatens to undermine a movement that otherwise is sorely needed.

When donors are urged to give with their heads rather than their hearts, they are being told to give in a rational rather than an emotional way. The assumption is that rational giving is effective giving and emotional giving is ineffective.

A better way to understand the head-heart analogy is by understanding it as left-brain and right-brain functions. Left-brain functions include analytical thought, logic, and math. Right-brain functions include holistic thought, intuition, creativity, and emotions. In many ways, the 20th century was focused on propagating left-brain functions. Rationality and logic ruled the day.

But in recent years it has become clear that right-brain functions are actually high-performance decision-making tools, not aspects of our humanity that we must learn to suppress lest they interfere with our logical thought processes.

Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, pointed to this shift in thinking when he was quoted in The New York Times in July. “Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings — feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it. Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.”

Ignoring the role of emotions in decision making is a mistake in all fields, but doing so in philanthropy is especially dangerous.

In a 2007 paper, three scholars — Deborah Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic — described the way logical thought can reduce charitable giving.

The study found that potential donors gave more money if they were asked to give to support a 7-year-old girl named Rokia facing starvation in Mali, Africa, than if they were asked to support the three million children facing starvation in the country. Worse, the study found that if the fund-raising appeal showcased Rokia but included statistical information about overall need in the country, donors gave less than they did when the statistical data were left out.

But the real threat of pushing too hard for donors to give with the head instead of the heart is most clearly illustrated in the final experiment of the study, which found that simply activating logical thought processes reduced charitable giving. When donors were asked to complete five simple logic problems before they were told about Rokia, they gave significantly less money than if they had not been “primed” with a left-brain exercise.

The Rokia study points to a real danger in the movement to encourage donors to give more rationally. While most everyone would like to see donors allocate their money based on a logical understanding of the problems they hope their gifts will solve, it turns out that encouraging donors to act this way may thwart their natural urge to give.

What then are we to do? Must we choose between increasing giving by avoiding logic or decreasing giving while making it more effective? I don’t think we can yet answer this question. But if there is a way through this paradox, a way to encourage high levels of rationally informed giving, the path will be one that embraces both left-brain and right-brain functions.

Today, charitable donations do not flow automatically to the organizations that produce the best results. Instead, fund raising is often a function of effectively pulling the heartstrings of donors. For those of us who wish to see a more robust social-capital market in which smart donors support high-performing nonprofit groups, the key will be to recognize the value of donors’ using both their heads and their hearts. While giving based only on emotions is not effective, giving based only on logic and other left-brain functions is giving with only half your head.


  1. Important post, important points.

  2. Interesting points in both your post and the recent Kristof article. I actually wrote a post on Philanthropy Indaba’s blog in July (photo and my thoughts are still up on the website, comments on the blog) called “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” where I described going to visit projects in East Africa where in the same rural village, right next to each other, there was a well-funded school (lots of classrooms with plaques thanking donors, living quarters for the teachers, solar panel, etc.) and a small one room clinic, with an overworked nurse, limited supplies, and no beds or equipment. Hospital is hours away.

    I asked why there was such robust funding for one and not the other when medical/health is as critical as education? People told me that when donors visit, they like to give money to the school because they see cute kids. Apparently, giving to schools and cute kids, sexy. Giving to medical clinic, not sexy.

  3. Sean–this is a really interesting post and it got me thinking about how we at Philanthropedia balance this tension between giving with one’s heart or with one’s mind. Our approach, however still imperfect, has been to encourage the donor to choose a social cause with their heart but an actual organization with their mind.

    This also got me thinking about how to best present the analytical information to the donor. Reflecting on what we’ve done, I realize we’re trying to meet the donor “half-way,” if you will. I just wrote a blog post on this topic (thanks for the inspiration!) which you can read at:

    Thanks for bringing this up and I’d love to hear what others think as well!

  4. Erinn, this is a tough issue. I labeled it a paradox in the post because there doesn’t seem to be a good answer. Your “half-way” approach makes sense, except that the study showed that going half-way (talking about Rokia, but also showing statistics on the fuller issue) still reduced giving.

    I think one key to unlocking this paradox might be found by examining the success of and Acumen Fund. Both are “left-brain” organizations using logic driven models, but they both have stimulated large numbers of passionate supporters who are emotionally connected to them.

    Kiva and Acumen Fund aren’t the answer to the paradox, but I think that their success holds the key for how the sector can unlock this problem.

  5. Sean, thank you for your great post and your shout-out to Acumen Fund. For anyone interested in this topic, I heartily recommend “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” by Daniel Pink.

    What I’d say is that almost ALL giving decisions are emotional ones, and I’m excited to see you bringing up this question. In fact the most common mistake I see is leading with the left-brain and thinking that people will make “rational” philanthropic decisions. (I put “rational” in quotes because I don’t mean that the opposite of “rational” is “irrational.” It might be “personal” or “gut” or “instinctive”.)

    I’m very interested in seeing the integration of left- and right-brain thinking and analysis in the discussion of philanthropy and philanthropist, so thanks for this post, and more soon.

  6. Premal Shah says:

    Great post Sean. I think you nailed it with:

    “But if there is a way through this paradox, a way to encourage high levels of rationally informed giving, the path will be one that embraces both left-brain and right-brain functions.”

    With Kiva, my hope is that we can strive to create an incredibly data rich experience on a variety of lending opportunities while generating sufficient momentum to fight off disengagement / inaction.

    Thanks for highlighting the study and the thoughtful post.

  7. Sasha and Premal, thanks for adding your thoughts. I think your two orgs have a lot to teach the world on this particular issue.

    Premal, just wanted to say how impressed I’ve been with the way Kiva has been updating the website so quickly in response to the recent transparency debates.

  8. Obviously your blog is about philanthropy, so I’ll be brief, but I just think it’s an interesting line of inquiry, because we know from much accummulated evidence that it’s the combination of emotional appeals and data-based evidence that drive policy decisions, too–both for elected officials and for advocates that we’re trying to mobilize. In a variety of spheres, it seems, combining the two “sides” is our best path to action.

  9. John Esterle says:

    Sean, thank you for your great post. I first read your article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which led me here. I’m glad to see you raise up this issue in such a prominent way as the interplay of thinking and emotion and how it affects decision making is a central, ongoing question for the foundation I lead, The Whitman Institute. Given the themes you explore in this post, I invite you to visit

    Anyway, I applaud you focusing on this theme and highlighting its importance in relation to philanthropy. I’ m also glad to have discovered your blog!

  10. Melinda, your comment makes intuitive sense to me, except that the Rokia study found that adding stats to the Rokia story (ie. presenting the “two sides”) still negatively effected the amount people gave.

    I want to believe that your suggestion is right. But it seems that there is a paradox at work here.

  11. Hi John,
    Thanks for your kind comment. I look forward to checking out your website!

  12. Jeff Mason says:

    Would it be a good thing to see an increase in giving and a decrease in our ability to address the social issues we face? I don’t think we should focus on increased or decreased giving. We should focus on helping those in need. If giving with your head results in a decrease in funding and an increase in impact then I’d be ok with that.

    Also, I don’t think its a one or the other proposition. I think you can give with your head and feel good about it. In fact, I think you can feel better your giving if it is done intelligently.

  13. Jeff, I think you can do both too. But I think it would be naive for us who care about social investing to ignore the potential danger of Left-Brain thinking to the empathetic process. A good Left-Brain thinker has to keep data like the Rokia study in mind when thinking about the social investment movement!

  14. After reading the original 2007 paper in it’s entirety, I have some thoughts……

    1) Although I agree that the findings are fascinating, I do think caution should be taken generalizing their findings to the larger philanthropic community. The study focused on small amounts ($5).

    2) My own theory is that emotional (identifiable) pleas for donations are very effective when asking for small amounts (somewhere under $1,000) – but that when pleas for larger amounts are made, some combination of emotional (identifiable) and statistical information are more effective. More money means people get more involved, and tend to want more information, so the emotional appeals have less overall effect. Again, this is my theory – still looking for some research to back this up.

    3) I think this does point to the need for all nonprofits to think about audience for their asks. Something my communication background has taught me is that there is no one ‘magic’ way to deliver a message. The audience plays a large role – so nonprofits should have multiple ways to ask for funding. And philanthropists shoudl be aware that these asks can be spun in many different ways.

    Thanks for linking to the original study Sean – GREAT piece of research that I think everyone should read.

  15. Great points Issac. I hope you’re right about larger asks (your theory certainly makes sense). My hope in highlighting the study is that people who care about social investing realize that they can’t just boil everything down to a spreadsheet and expect money to flow. Removing emotions from giving is a recipe for disaster.

  16. Sean,
    The quote you included from Mr. Damasio, “Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings — feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it. Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us” is exactly why WINGS is in the business we are in. We value the importance of social and emotional education. So we obviously understand the importance of emotions.

    With that being said, I agree that there has to be a healthy balance when giving. You obviously want to give to people that are truly making a difference. I also hope Isaac’s theory proves to be sure. It makes sense.

  17. Great crossroads for two schools of thought to intersect. I think Isaac makes some strong points. As with all things, understanding your audience is the best way to move the needle. This is true with the target populations we serve, the staff we supervise, our board members and funders. The use of a powerful story cannot be underestimated. In fact, when I talk to funders I use pictures and stories. Statistics are the cornerstone, but they can be placed strategically to get the desired result. If the data comes first, say in a proposal, once that grant is rewarded, the stories about the struggles and triumphs of your target population keeps them coming back for more. In this example, come for the data, stay for the impact.

    We are human beings, and as such are moved by a holistic representation of the human experience. That is why we respond to art, music books – and why we respond to a story like Rokia’s. Her story moves us along the spectrum of human emotion. But, emotion is fickle, and quickly looks for other Rokia’s to feed its need. This is why the balancing force of logic, stats and data is so critical to building long-term relationships with emotionally-grounded funders.

    Thanks, Sean. Interesting post.

  18. I love the conversation and do appreciate that there seems to be some agreement on striking a balance.

    For me philanthropy should be driven by the heart…the desire to invest in and to see something different and better in the world where we have failed as communities and human beings to take care of each other, the environment, etc…

    Also, for me, organizations and practitioners doing the work should do it from the heart and from a strong commitment and passion to actually do whatever it takes to make change possible in the world and for those we serve.

    Therefore, if the desire to give and to do is driven by the heart and by truly wanting the changes we seek…the rigor of ensuring that we make logical and thoughtful decisions, have strategy , theory and intention driving our work, and make sure we are having impact by measuring our effectiveness is not at all about head decisions.

    It is the truest form of giving and doing from the heart. It is about honoring and respecting those we serve enough to actually make a difference or get better as organizations and funders so that we can.

  19. Ginny Deerin says:

    As someone who has raised more than $100 million in philanthropy over 30 years, I’ve come to realize that every donor prospect is different. The key is to figure out what motivates the prospect.

    Just last week I had one prospect say to me, “I don’t need any eye candy – just give me the facts.” And another who said, “I want to go see the program, I don’t need your information packet.”

    The posts here have been addressing right/left brains. My experience tells me that MOST are engaged when we tug on both sides. But there is a third “turn on” and that’s P&I -the power and influence factor. I think this shows up most in political contributions but don’t count it out in other fields.