Making Charitable Appeals to Donors’ Hearts and Heads

By Sean Stannard-Stockton
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.

Sean Stannard-Stockton is chief executive of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, in Burlingame, Calif., and author of the Tactical Philanthropy blog. He is a regular columnist for the The Chronicle of Philanthropy.