Oxytocin: The key ingredient for growing giving?

27 November 2014

Earlier this month I was invited to the Science of Philanthropy Initiative, Chicago, to discuss how behavioural economics can help grow legacy giving.

Charity fundraisers have long-understood the mantra of ‘asking’ and ‘better asking’ to raise vital funds. But how does this work with something as private and taboo as legacies?

Remember A Charity has successfully demonstrated that by simply nudging about charitable giving during the Will-writing process, we could treble the number of people who left a gift to charity. But this nudge was only successful when the client didn’t have any family.

So why is this?

Gifts to friends and family more heavily involve brain regions of emotion and memory, compared with those gifts left to charity – according to research by Professor Russell James at Texas Tech University.

Charitable giving is rewarding, just like receiving money. But uniquely involves oxytocin-rich social attachment brain regions, which are used in maternal and romantic love.

He argues that lower emotional and memory recall may help explain why charitable bequests are more rare than gifts to friends and family; and why charitable gifts may be particularly compelling when memorializing a deceased loved one.

So, what does this mean for charities?

The findings strongly suggest that there is a greater need for charities to connect the emotion and memory of a loved one with the charity or cause that was important to them. A fascinating conclusion from James’ research was that memories of grandmothers evoked the strongest response.

Charities were certainly part of my grandparents’ lives – either as donors or as beneficiaries. But perhaps the reality is that charities touch all of our lives at some point, playing a central role in our family.

There’s an interesting opportunity to re-frame the discussion about charitable gifts in Wills. Perhaps our role as fundraisers is to remind donors about the central role that charity has played in their own family.

I know when I think about my own Gran, I view the world slightly differently.

Rob Cope, director at Remember A Charity