Empathy, Romance, and Fundraising

Empathy, romance, and fundraising are an unlikely grouping of words. But a recent story in the Wall Street Journal suggests they can fit together, and provide a lesson for fundraisers trying to build professional relationships with donors.

Wall Street Journal columnist Robert M. Sapolsky cites research which focuses on attraction between two people (“In Romance, a Little Understanding Goes a Long Way”, Wall Street Journal, weekend edition, Jan. 28-29). The research, published last April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used brain-scanning technology on 43 men. Researchers asked men to look at pictures of six women and to imagine having a conversation with one of them. They then watched a video of that woman expressing either fear or sadness.

The men were asked to describe the woman’s emotional state and say how confident they were of their own assessments. The result was the following correlation: the more confident the men were of accurately reading the women’s emotions the more attractive they found them (according to scans of the region of the brain linked to rewards). Men who experienced the greatest increase in attraction to a particular woman also reported a strong sense that she would understand them.

Mr. Sapolsky states that the experiment (which was repeated using women as research subjects) “highlights the psychological and neurobiological building blocks of what they (the researchers) call ‘finding the right cooperation partner’.”

How can this insight be applied to fundraising? We sometimes think that filling donors with volumes of performance metrics or a laundry list of organizational needs will inspire them to write a check. But before any of this can have relevance it’s critical to establish a relationship with the donor. The research suggests that a key factor in building relationships is to understand and care about the other person’s feelings, personal situation, and professional situation; in a word, empathy.

Rich Brown is President of RB Consulting and an adjunct faculty member at New York University and Columbia University. Comments on this article can be directed to rbrown1787@gmail.com.


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