Posted December 1st, 2015

Charitable Giving: Good for Charities, Good for Donors

Good for the heartStudies suggest that “’tis better to give than to receive” is not just an adage, but a scientific fact.

Many nonprofits rely on gifts from individuals to either fully or partially fund their missions. Development officers charged with encouraging gifts from individuals and others find their task is easiest when they clearly communicate their mission and let potential donors know how much their support is needed and that it will be used effectively to achieve that mission.

It is interesting to note that a number of studies report that it’s not just recipients that benefit from charitable gifts. Charitable giving also appears to be good for the health of the donor and the well-being of our communities. Also of note for those working with potential estate donors is the positive impact giving may have on one’s health.

Here’s to your health

In 2013 Emma Seppälä, Ph.D and Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), published the article “The Compassionate Mind” in the May-June issue of the Association for Psychological Science’s semi-monthly publication Observer. Dr. Seppälä’s article reported on health benefits in people who are ill, revealing that compassion expressed by them helps speed up recovery from illnesses and may also lengthen life spans.

Giving to others is particularly effective for those suffering from mental and emotional conditions such as depression and anxiety. This activity not only serves as a buffer to stress but also promotes an “other-focus.” Ironically, a person’s self-esteem increases when shifting focus away from the self, as depression and anxiety are linked to a state of “self-focus.” Altruistic behaviors cause the individual to focus on others, thus combatting a root enabler of depression.

Perhaps more importantly, compassion increases a sense of connection to others. Seppälä’s article cited a study that showed “a lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure” and that a strong social connection contributes to longer life expectancies. In fact, research shows that genes associated with social connection also code for immune function and inflammation.

Survival of the kindest?

At our core, says Dr. Seppälä, humans are compassionate. It’s a natural response for a group to work together to ensure survival. Studies with rats, chimpanzees and even human infants support this claim.

According to science writer Elizabeth Svoboda’s August 2013 essay in The Wall Street Journal, “Hard-Wired for Giving,” compassion appears to be coded in our brains. Neuroscientists like Dr. Jordan Grafman, now Director of Brain Injury Research at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, have found, among other discoveries, that making charitable gifts activates the same part of the brain that releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter essential to many aspects of good health. The act of giving also activates an area of the brain with receptors for oxytocin, a hormone that among other functions promotes social bonding, suggesting that giving to others and social connection are closely linked.

Fundraising lessons

So why is this important to fundraisers? Understanding these scientific observations can lead to greater insight into a donor’s motivation. This is not to suggest that we tell donors to give because it will improve their health or increase their life spans, but we are learning that not only do charities benefit from giving, the giver may also be “hardwired” to give and experience pleasure and health benefits in doing so. This insight might make the process of making “the ask” not as difficult as one might at first imagine.

Additionally, for those working in the area of estate giving, understanding the physical relationship between giving and a healthier life will broaden an understanding of why many of those who are devoted givers in later life tend to live longer, happier lives. If overall life expectancies continue to rise, and charitable donors live longer, the “age of philanthropy” in coming years may be a lot older than we might expect. ■

Reading Resources

“The Compassionate Mind” by Emma Seppälä, Observer, May-June, 2013
“Hard-Wired for Giving” by Elizabeth Svoboda, The Wall Street Journal, August, 2013
Why Good Things Happen to Good People by Stephen Post, Ph.D and Jill Neimark (Broadway, 2007)
Give to Live: How Giving Can Change Your Life by Douglas Lawson, Ph.D (Alti Publishing, 1991)
“5 Ways Giving Is Good for You” by Jason Marsh and Jill Suttie, Greater Good, 2010
“Providing Social Support May Be More Beneficial Than Receiving It: Results from a Prospective Study of Mortality” by Stephanie Brown, Randolph Nesse, Amiram Vinokur and Dylan Smith, Psychological Science, 2003

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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