MEDFORD, Mass. — Before humanitarian nonprofits provide relief to the world’s less fortunate, they must provide for themselves. Charities ceaselessly fundraise, publicize and accept donations in order to stay afloat in a competitive marketplace, where numerous charity organizations vie for the public’s attention and monetary support. Which charities receive funding may seem like chance, but there’s more to it, even more so than advertising and rationality. Neurons, chemical messages and science explain why people give, which is important information for all nonprofits and, of course, their marketing strategies.
A Relevant Study on Why People Give
Scientists have long since correlated the activation of dopamine reward pathways (dopamine is a neurotransmitter important in reward-motivated behavior) to the act of giving. It’s why “giving feels good,” as the saying goes. But there must be more to it; psychologists Hare, Camere, Knoepfle, O’Doherty and Rangel set out to find answers through their study named “Value Computations in Ventral Medial Prefrontal Cortex during Charitable Decision Making Incorporate Input from Regions Involved in Social Cognition.” Their study asked questions like, how do we choose where to donate? How do we evaluate the competition? To answer these questions, the team of psychologists gave 22 females $100 to spend on up to 75 different, wide-ranging charities. Each woman rated the charities on their “closeness” (how likely is it that family or friends would benefit from this charity?) and their “deservingness” (how efficacious and impactful is the charity?) They then divvied up their cash while inside an fMRI machine (functional magnetic resonance imaging,) a device used to measure neural activity by monitoring blood flow in the brain. The results suggested that the act of donating is associated with at least three areas of the brain: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the anterior insula and the posterior superior gyrus.
The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (VMPFC)
The importance, or value, of each charity correlates with increased activity in the VMPFC, a part of the frontal lobe associated with risk and fear processing and decision making, especially personal and social decisions with ambiguous consequences. People with damaged VMPFCs can make moral judgments intellectually in hypothetical terms, but have difficulty applying those judgments in real life. In the study, the VMPFC seemed to gather responses from “primary areas” associated with social cognition, including the following:
1. The Anterior Insula
This area of the brain, part of the insular cortex, is linked to empathy. People with a damaged anterior insula may be able to understand charities’ perspectives, but they are most likely unable to connect with the charities’ goals or humanitarian agendas. If these people donate, it’ll probably be a small amount.
2. The Posterior Superior Gyrus
Part of the temporal lobe, this area of the brain perceives agency in others. People with damaged posterior superior gyri would most likely not be able to understand charities’ perspectives at all. If these people donate large amounts, something may be amiss. Though the study refrains from making any startling conclusions about the charity selection process, it does confirm intuitions people may have about it. Donating is not always a rational process. In fact, more often than not, emotions take the reins; by taking the perspective of others and reasoning empathetically, people employ components of social cognition to judge nonprofits. The more human a charity seems, the more emotionally salient, the more likely it is to receive funding.
– Adam Kaminski