In an article titled “The Joy of Giving,” The Economist reports on brain research that seeks to explain the mental processes involved in making donations.

Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke used a standard technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging to map the brain activity that occurred when test subjects were asked to consider making contributions to controversial charities. The test causes included support for abortion, euthanasia and sex equality, and opposition to the death penalty, nuclear power and war.

In layperson terms …

When an individual donates, what is activated is the brain's reward center … the area responsible for doling out the dopamine-mediated euphoria associated with sex, money, food and drugs. Hence the “warm glow” of giving!

But there's more. Donating also engages the part of the brain that plays a role in the bonding behavior between mother and child, and in romantic love. The chemical agent here is oxytocin, a hormone that increases trust and cooperation. However, when test subjects oppose an issue, a different area is activated … an area thought responsible for punishment.

And yet a third area is activated when subjects must to make tradeoffs between self-interest and moral beliefs. A good friend and fellow student of brain research, Rob Smith, suggests that this last area, recently evolved and thought to be unique to humans, is the locus of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Lesson for fundraisers: include a dose of dopamine with your fundraising letters and proposals, with instructions: Take Before Reading!

For serious students, a reprint of the full study can be purchased for $10 from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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