Which words have the most influence in legacy marketing?

10 April 2017

Words matter.  Several popular internet memes highlight humorous results when English signs in non-English speaking locations almost get the message right.  One sign warns customers, “shoplifters will be shot 100 times the value of the stolen item.” Another instructs those using a computer port to, “please insert furiously.”  Aside from these humorous miscommunications, words can matter in legacy marketing as well.

Different words can put us in different frames of mind

At times, we might be in a market/transactional frame of mind, looking to gain an advantage and get the most out of exchange.  At other times, we might be in a social/family frame of mind, looking to benefit and connect with important others.

We know from neuroimaging research that charitable giving involves social cognition regions of the brain.[i]  When social connections are emphasized, charitable giving becomes more likely.  In contrast, when the emphasis is on market, transactional, technical, or contract language, charitable giving becomes less likely.

“Make a gift”

In an experiment in the U.S., adding the formal legal title to a description of a complex charitable giving arrangement involving a charitable estate gift substantially reduced interest in making such gifts.  Similarly, describing a charitable transaction by starting with the phrase, “Make a transfer of assets” cut the share of interested donors in half as compared to an identical description starting with the phrase, “Make a gift.”

In another large survey, about 23% of people were interested now in “Make a gift to charity in my Will,” but only 12% were similarly interested in “Make a bequest gift to charity.”  Consistently, the use of more technical, legal, or contract terms to describe a gift reduces interest in making that gift.

Legacy giving is unique in that it involves issues of life and death

Referencing these issues can also affect interest in such gifts.  Most people, most of the time, respond to personal mortality reminders with some form of avoidance.  Thus, increasing emphasis on death will tend to increase avoidance of the gift.

For example, people were significantly less interested in making “a gift to charity in my last Will & testament” when the ending phrase “that will take effect at my death” was added to the description.

In contrast, references to connections with the person’s life story increased interest in the gift.  The life story is central to giving decisions.  Neuroimaging research demonstrates that when people are considering a charitable bequest, they engage in “visualized autobiography.”[ii]  Research involving in-depth interviews of planned bequest donors also finds that a central issue in selection of the charities was a connection with the donor’s life story.[iii]

Correspondingly, the greatest interest in making a legacy gift arose when people were asked about their willingness to “make a gift to charity in your Will to support causes that have been important in your life.”[iv]

Thus, emphasizing life, rather than death, and a simple gift, rather than a complex legal transaction, can encourage donors to make a legacy gift.

Russell James, Professor & CH Foundation Chair in Personal Financial Planning and Director of Graduate Studies in Charitable Planning at Texas Tech University

[i] Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(42), 15623-15628.

[ii] James III, R. N., & O’Boyle, M. W. (2014). Charitable estate planning as visualized autobiography: An fMRI study of its neural correlates. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43(2), 355-373.

[iii] Routley C. J. (2011). Leaving a charitable legacy: Social influence, the self and symbolic immortality (doctoral dissertation). University of the West of England, Bristol, UK

[iv] James III, R. N. (2016). Phrasing the charitable bequest inquiry. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27(2), 998-1011.