Neuroscience and Fundraising

Neuroscience and Fundraising


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Whether we understand and acknowledge it, or not, we all have an interesting relationship with neuroscience, neurolinguistics, and neurolinguistic programming. These terms describe the possibility that how human beings react to certain decision-making triggers can be studied and understood.

Many of us get this empirically at a very early age, through years of trial and error. We ask for what we want or need using one voice and it works – using another voice, it doesn’t. Over and over, until we always use the first voice.

Understanding this phenomenon helps us understand how it is used on us. I told my kids as they were growing up that the first job of all advertising is to make us sad. If advertising can make us feel left out or somehow dissatisfied with our lives and possessions as they are, we will be more likely to believe that we can change that feeling by doing what the advertiser wants – buy something, go somewhere, and so on.


Understanding this phenomenon can help us use it more intentionally also. People of conscience don’t spend enough time thinking about all this, in my opinion. It feels sleazy and manipulative. And it certainly can be.

But, it can also be just smart.

This was the point of a recent Bloomerang piece, Annual Fundraising: Influence “Yes” Using Psychology and Neuroscience. In the article, the authors offer six triggers that can be used to increase your fundraising returns this year.

Manipulative? Certainly!

Sleazy? Not necessarily.

Smart? Try it for yourself and see.


I commend to you the full article, but here are the six triggers in summary.


  1. Reciprocity – the feeling that by giving, we are giving back – or possibly even giving forward. I am motivated to give from a sense of obligation. This is the reason framing organizational successes as benefitting the reader works.


  1. Commitment, Consistency, Foot in the Door – the feeling that we have made this same decision before; I am motivated to give as part of a continuum, and the next move is mine. This is the reason reminding the reader how long they have been giving works.


  1. Social Proof – the feeling that people we know and trust are involved. I am motivated to give to be more like my peers. This is the reason that that donor clubs are effective.


  1. Authority – the feeling that the people speaking know what they are talking about. I am motivated to give because the organization is credible: the problems are believable and the solutions being pursued will work. This is the reason including the bona fides of your staff and Board members works.


  1. Loss Aversion, Scarcity Principle or ‘FOMO’ – the feeling that by not acting, or not acting soon enough, we will be losing something. I am motivated to give to avoid that loss. This is the reason describing the “pace” of conservation versus the “pace” of development works. (It’s also the reason matching gifts work.)


  1. Anchoring – the feeling that what we are being asked to do is comparable in some way to what is being asked. I am motivated to give because the request is so specific – and reasonable. This is the reason asking for specific amounts of money works.


Note that these principles exist independently of the media. They work equally as well in print, online, and in person. As technology has advanced, our ability to manipulate the triggers has grown exponentially, but the triggers themselves have not changed. Human beings still react as they always have. Understand them. Use them intentionally, consciously, and for the right reasons.


Cheers, and have a great week.




Photo by Suzy Hazelwood courtesy of


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