When Fundraisers and Marketers Get Together, This is the Kind of Stuff They Talk About


A growing number of nonprofit professionals are applying research on brain function to fundraising, according to Geoffrey Peters, chief executive of the Moore DM Group, a consulting company that helps nonprofits nationwide with direct mail, digital and other types of direct-response fundraising. Peters cited studies performed by scientists that have unveiled the ways that neurological events affect emotions and decision-making.

Peters was one of several speakers at the 14th annual Bridge to Integrated Marketing and Fundraising Conference this month in National Harbor, Maryland, which drew more than 2,500 nonprofit fundraising and marketing professionals.

According to Peters, studies on the neurological effects of music, for example, might be useful to fundraising event planners. The research has shown that fast music played in a restaurant makes people drink alcohol faster and leave faster, while slow music gets people to linger over dinner and spend more money, Peters said. The message for fundraisers organizing events such as auctions: Play slow music at events to encourage people to relax and spend.  

Peters also described studies on the oxytocin hormone (found in men as well as in lactating women). Levels of the hormone increase when people engage with dogs, for instance, and makes them feel more trusting, calm and generous, Peters said. For that reason, including pictures of dogs in solicitations might be one subtle way to motivate people to give.   

Mirroring a person’s body language and even their breathing pattern during negotiations taps into “mirror neurons,” making that person feel that he or she has something in common with the negotiator, Peters said. It happens between people naturally, and it’s the way babies learn. In experiments with an obvious link to fundraising, he noted, researchers found that people who consciously used mirroring in negotiations had five times more success than those who did not mirror the other person’s body language.

In another session on diversity and inclusion, George Jones, the chief executive at Bread for the City, a Washington charity, called on charity leaders to emphasize the strengths of people they serve rather than their disadvantages. That, he said, is one key to getting donations from a wide pool of donors.

“We must emphasize the strength and resilience of the people being served by nonprofits,” he said. “It’s a form of equity to emphasize the systemic causes of socioeconomic inequities rather than describe people as ‘needy,’ ‘poor’ and ‘disadvantaged.’”

“When you emphasize the personal responsibility of the poor, by, say, deciding to teach them to budget,” he said, “well, most of the people coming to Bread For the City make less than $10,000 a year, so it’s pretty hard to budget.”

Jones pointed to studies showing that people of color are highly motivated to work for nonprofits, and data showing that multicultural teams bring unique strengths to an organization and increase its ability to attract others from across the workforce.

To tackle systemic racism, Bread For the City requires its staff and volunteers to take racial equity training, Jones said. “We also offer jobs to people of color in all of our programs and departments, search for talent internally before searching externally, include program staff in fundraising, train community members, and consider churches and sales departments in the community as talent sources.”

He recommended that organizations “change the narrative about people of color in leadership and commit to making racial equity a priority by understanding the continued grip of institutional inequity.”

“There are a lot of African American people in D.C. who have wealth,” he said, “and we have to get better at engaging them.”

Tabitha Glenn, interim vice president of direct marketing at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, was one of several conference speakers to note the increased difficulty charities face in finding new donors. The best research available, she noted, finds that total giving is up, but there are fewer people giving.

In such an environment, Glenn said, she finds inspiration in African American leaders like entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a semi-retired professional wrestler.

The Rock is an authentic leader, she said, “because he has a great work ethic, uses social media in an authentic way, promotes a healthy lifestyle, and shares encouraging messages and videos.” 

Oprah, Glenn said, “advocates for the voiceless, teaches and inspires others to be more than they thought they could be, is openly transparent about her personal struggles, and is a generous philanthropist.”

“What authentic leadership does not look like,” she said, “are hashtags, accomplishments, power, title, fame and ego.” 

“Authentic leadership is self-aware, mission driven, seeks feedback, leads with the heart and the head, focuses on the long term, is vulnerable, true to values, and owns mistakes,” Glenn said.

Transformations, she added, are coming at an accelerating pace, adding new challenges for fundraising. Among them: media consumption, limited privacy, and revolutionary changes in the ways that money changes hands.

To be an authentic leader, Glenn recommended that nonprofit officials compile a personal brand and values statement. She related hers: “I push the envelope to serve those in need and have a passion for grassroots resourcing for solutions.”

She also recommended that nonprofit leaders create a Google alert on themselves, ask for feedback “up, across and down” among colleagues within their organizations and other institutions, define and share their expectations, ask others to share their views on what the nonprofit leader should be accomplishing, and create a “not now” list to remove tasks that distract that leader from his or her core mission.

She added: “Lead from your head, heart, and be you!”