Elevate Philanthropy ™
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A New Year’s Resolution that Sticks – and How to Leverage It

Former Senior Vice President, People

With the switch of calendars comes an avalanche of intentions, resolutions, do-better-next-times, and at least one new gym membership. We talk about them every year, though the trajectory is often the same. It likely comes as no surprise that the average resolution doesn’t last past February. Our dedication wanes as what was once novel becomes mundane.

What may be a surprise is that there is at least one resolution that does not fade and instead grows stronger and deeper over time. That resolution is giving, but it comes with a caveat.

Numerous studies demonstrate the positive and contagious effects of gifting one’s time or resources. Scientists describe the “helper’s high” and the “giver’s glow” as the neurological response, visible on brain scans, that accompanies making a gift of self.

In one such study, participants were provided with $5 a day for five days. One group was instructed to keep the money and another told that the money was to be given to someone else. Those that kept the money for themselves saw their happiness levels peak and then fall; the additional income of $5 a day soon became routine and expected, no longer bringing the same levels of contentment that the first payment did. Those that gave away the $5 to someone else experienced a different trajectory; their levels of happiness were sustained over time. Giving $5 each day did not become as uninteresting, unsatisfying, or commonplace as keeping the money did; it remained novel and joyful.

At Graham-Pelton, this comes as no surprise – we believe that humanity depends on philanthropy, on the kind of altruism and generosity demonstrated by study participants.

And yet these studies reveal a separate but related truth: that philanthropy may depend on humanity; that our brains are wired to seek more pleasure from sharing what we have than from keeping it. If so, it is our job as fundraisers to harness this natural tendency, to quench the desire for the “giver’s glow.”

It is interesting and worth noting that study participants did not know how their daily gift of $5 was spent. Lest the continued daily gifts convey a false sense of security to us as fundraisers, major gift fundraising best practice tells us that if the study continued, the desire to give would quickly taper off. Without the demonstration of impact, participants would soon wonder how their gifts were being used.

As fundraisers, our job is to ensure that the “giver’s glow” of donors relies not on imagination of impact but on fact: to craft solicitations with the donor in mind, stewarding well before the ask. This is the start of cultivating donor relationships and to building a transformational fundraising effort.

As the calendar turns to February, though the gym membership may go unused, the desire to give will not falter unless we let it. By intentionally building relationships with donors, understanding their interests and visions, crafting asks that speak to these interests, and approaching stewardship as a journey rather than a “thank you,” the glow for donors will only continue to grow.

Christina Ferguson is Senior Manager, Executive Engagements with Graham-Pelton. Contact her directly via email or by calling 800-608-7955.