I am not a scientist.
Mine is a brain made for metaphor, not molecules. But so long as I don’t need to crack a biology textbook, memorize the periodic table or dissect a frog, I’m willing to dip a toe in.
And one area I find fascinating is neuroscience. Why do we behave the way we do?
This intersects with fundraising, of course. Crack the code, figure out why your donors do what they do, and you’ll be much more successful, right?
That sounds calculating. But I don’t think it is. Our job is to connect donors to the changes they want to make in the world. Understanding the best way to do that is helpful.
So I was interested in an article I found from Louise Altman on her blog, The Intentional Workplace. She references a presentation made this summer. Stephen Porges, Ph.D., presented the following conclusions from his research:
• Compassion is a manifestation of our biological need to engage and bond with others
• Compassion is a component of our biological quest for “safety” in the proximity of others.
In other words, our urge to be helpful is hard-wired. It’s not consciously based on self-interest. We’re made to help.
I kept hunting. (Thank you, Google). And I learned that one of the mechanisms believed to be behind this is the vagus nerve. In a Scientific American article, Dacher Keltner, director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley explains:
The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. It activates different organs throughout the body (such as the heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music… The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and maternal bonding… People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.
But can those feelings be cultivated? Keltner thinks so.
• Experiences of reverence in nature or of being around those who are morally inspiring improves people’s sense of connection to one another and their sense of purpose.
• Meditating on a compassionate approach to others shifts resting brain activation to the left hemisphere, a region associated with happiness, and boosts immune functions.
• Talking about what we are thankful for—in classrooms, at the dinner table or in a diary—boosts happiness, social well-being and health.
• Devoting resources to others, rather than indulging a materialist desire, brings about lasting well-being.
And there we go – the answer is “yes”.
So what can we do to help connect our donors to their innate kindness? Tell stories that show someone being compassionate. Or stories that show someone who needs help. It takes some skill – you’re going for the sort of reaction mentioned above, the way you feel when moved by a beautiful piece of music.
If there was ever an argument for being emotional, this is it. Can you tell your stories that way?
It also explains why video is becoming so important. Suddenly, we can show, not just tell! Seeing compassion, seeing need makes it real.
I think that’s our calling. To spur in the imagination others’ natural caring response. It will make them happier. And it will make the world a nicer place. So show them someone they can help. Or tell how a person like them did something wonderfully compassionate. Make them feel helpful.
Then make it as easy as possible for them to act on that. Thank them – with lots of emotion – and reinforce the message.