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Giving can (and should) be a pleasurable experience that cultivates and nurtures the human capacity for love, and by using philanthropic psychology, fundraisers can help to deepen the experience says the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy‘s Harriet Jones-Day. In her blog, she explains the science, what it can offer, and how to get started.
What is philanthropic psychology? To understand it, it’s helpful to start with some definitions:
The root of philanthropy is from the Greek ‘love of humankind.’
Psychology is the study or research of the psyche or the soul.
When you put the two words together, you get a discipline that is effectively about how people love humankind. So philanthropic psychology is the study of how people love others. Well, almost. When we study the love of humankind, we study both how we love others but also how we can better love ourselves – deepening our sense of personal wellbeing.
In the context of fundraising, love is expressed through the act of giving. Many psychologists and fundraisers believe that love is in some sense self-sacrificial and the more self-sacrificial (or selfless) the gift, the better it somehow is. There are two issues here.
The first is that ‘altruism’ and self-sacrificial giving is a very 20th century take on philanthropy. Giving is most powerful when the donor extends their sense of who they are around an organisation or cause. So, I might see myself as a Greenpeace supporter and it is core to my sense of self. Then when I donate, I am not giving money away or sacrificing a part of me. Rather I am moving resources around to another part of who I am and celebrating the self, not sacrificing it.
The second problem with this perspective is that we usually don’t adequately consider who the ‘self’ is that is being sacrificed. So even if we view giving as a sacrifice, we can deprive ourselves of the opportunity to feel good about having made the sacrifice, because we’re not sure what has been given up or lost.
Philanthropic psychology counterbalances this by supporting fundraisers and donors to articulate their sense of self in the most precise way, so if we then say we self-sacrificially give, that phrase enriches rather than diminishes our meaning in life.
At the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy, we believe that giving can (and should) be a pleasurable, mutually beneficial experience which cultivates and nurtures the human capacity for love. Articulating that love through a gift can create a simple exchange of pleasure. Put simply, I help a beneficiary and I feel good as a consequence of offering my love. But philanthropic psychology can deepen that experience because it studies different forms of love and how these different types can help us grow meaning in life.
But more on that later. For now, it’s important to move beyond the terminology to understand what it means in practice. Philanthropic psychology is a powerful blend of the study of identity, wellbeing, and love. Through our experiments with real-world fundraising, we have consistently doubled giving by using this framework of understanding.
In brief, the science of identity is the study of who we are. In the fundraising community, research abounds on why people give and what the drivers are that prompt their generosity. Even when identities are studied, they are often explored as tools to grow giving.
Philanthropic psychology is different. It does not see peoples’ identities as something that we target and then consume. Instead, it sees people’s identities as something that we collect, cherish, and nurture. It does not see giving as the consequence of fulfilling identities, it sees giving as the route to living fulfilling identities.
There are three vital contributions that philanthropy can make to wellbeing: connection, competence, and autonomy. These are all higher order human needs that every human has. We will outline what they mean alongside some self-reflection questions to get you started on your journey with philanthropic psychology:
Connection – We need to feel connected to others that we love and care about. When connections between people and others they care about are strengthened, wellbeing increases – and with it, donations can increase.
- Who do your supporters crave a connection with? (the beneficiary group, a specific community, your brand, your organisation itself?)
- How are you building that connection?
Competence – We feel good as human beings when we feel we are good at doing certain things. The more competent we feel, the more wellbeing we experience. And in the context of philanthropy that means feeling competent in articulating our love for others.
- Do your donors feel like they can truly make a difference to the cause?
- Do they feel competent in giving their love to the ones they care about the most, or is the organisation getting in the middle of that?
Autonomy – We also experience wellbeing when we feel we have a say in something or a hand in making something good happen. The more autonomy we experience, the greater the consequent wellbeing. So giving donors a voice and agency in the impact they have is crucial.
The final point must not be mistaken with control, because the essence of a sustainable philanthropic relationship is trust. The whole point of trust is not to control what the other one does, or achieves, but to cede our own control to someone we have learnt to trust.
- Are you making the donor feel that they have a voice, and their voice matters?
- Do they feel they have a choice in how to express their love for those they care about?
‘Love’ is not a monolith, and the love expressed in different contexts and among different people looks, sounds, and feels very different. Understanding the role of love in philanthropic psychology is understanding who nonprofits are and who their supporters are – and crafting the right kind of relationship for the right kind of love to grow.
All three concepts of love, identity, and wellbeing have the capacity to develop the meaning that supporters can experience in their philanthropy. They also have the ability to double giving precisely because it feels good to donors when they offer that support. In that way, philanthropic psychology delivers the sector a dual bottom line – impacting positively on both supporters and the causes they love.
About Harriet Jones-Day
Harriet Jones-Day is a Lecturer in Fundraising at the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy, which offers the Certificate in Philanthropic Psychology. She holds a law degree from the University of Exeter and is a graduate of the Institute of Fundraising’s Certificate in Fundraising qualification programme. Harriet also oversees and is a tutor for the Fundraising Standard, which runs classes for US fundraising professionals. Harriet is passionate and committed to her work and has published several research reports in the domain of philanthropy and fundraising. She is currently aiding in the development of courses and certificates to help improve the learning landscape for fundraisers around the world.
Picture: by Khadeeja Yasser on Unsplash