The Secrets to Creating Meaningful Bonds: What Does Research Tell Us?

Written by: Susan Holt

Written by: Susan Holt

We talk a lot in major gift fundraising about relationship building, frequently superimposed on layers of data mining, wealth screening and propensity scoring.  Clearly, major gifts, or philanthropic investments as I prefer to call them, don’t happen without the existence of some sort of relationship.  In the best cases, these are deep and enduring.

There are many factors that help create bonds between people:  from deep friendships to shared dreams, experiences and values, to common hopes and visions, and sometimes a crises, or a crises averted.  Relationships are critical.  But, to nurture major donor relationships that truly endure, I prefer to focus on creating bonds; the bonds that undeniably tie us to one another.  This is what I want to devote a little time to here. 

In my opinion, it is easy to overlook some of the fundamental human drives that help to contribute to even more meaningful bonds between the people in a charitable organization and the donors who believe in them and invest in them.

In its 2016 Report, Giving USA points out that on average, Americans give approximately $1 billion away every day to help others[1].  In 2015, philanthropy increased 4.1% and again reached an all-time high for the second consecutive year.  This is truly remarkable!

So, what is contributing to the historic generosity of Americans?  No doubt, there are many factors.  At a time when the political discourse is probably more unsettling than in any recent memory, the belief that we can make a difference in creating a better world, seems to be as strong as ever.

In a survey of wealthy Americans that asked about their giving,

·      43% cited personal experience as a prime motivator for philanthropic action

·      54% of Americans who gave the largest gifts, cited that giving back is not only important to them, but it is considered an essential aspect of their life.[2]

There has been a growing amount of research that explores the correlation between happiness, the drive for social connection and giving. 

Recently, I’ve also enjoyed reading about the value of experiences in our lives and the connection to happiness. 

Study after study conducted by UCLA psychologists to neuroimaging scientists at the NIH to research from the Harvard Business School, support what many of us in fundraising have known for years:  giving makes people happy!  Also referred to as the “warm glow”, functional magnet resonance imaging studies have confirmed that certain areas of the brain associated with pleasure and happiness are activated when people are asked about their giving.[3] 

Other studies have supported the growing understanding of the value of experiences over material goods. [4] Once a person has enough money to take care of their basic needs, it turns out that it is not money that buys happiness, it is experiences that are valued for a longer period of time and bring greater happiness.

Take a look at what another behavioral scientist, Michael D. Lieberman, has found about the drive for social connection in his book, Social:  How Our Brain Are Wired To Connect. Dr. Lieberman points out the fundamental importance and sheer drive for social connection in human being’s lives, right down to how our brains are wired.[5] 

Happiness, meaningful, lasting experiences and the drive for human connection:  this is all powerful stuff.  And, these findings all have important implications for how we engage those people who are the most significant philanthropic investors in our organizations.  

There are many ways this research can inform how we create truly meaningful bonds with our donors and friends. Philanthropy is powerful in many ways.  Yes, it can change the world, but it can also change and contribute significantly to the lives of the people who believe in us and choose to join us as game changers in others’ lives! 

Below are four of my top ten tips for creating bonds with our donors that promote emotional connection and happiness.  Remember, giving involves the head, but it is primarily about the heart!

1.  Make sure you understand why a donor’s gift is important to him/her; What is the significance of the gift/the relationship to the institution in his/her life?

  • Share this information with your CEO; make sure he/she can act on it when interacting with the donor.
  • This conversation is more about the heart than the head. (Read More: Active Listening” Questions)
  • This becomes the resource for a future story about the donor and the impact of his or her gift.  See below.

2.  Determine how can you maximize these feelings by strategically supporting the bonds and relationships to others in the institution

  • WHO are the people that are important to the donor?  Support and foster these relationship(s).

3.  Ask donors to tell their life story and describe their connection to your organization (This is especially beneficial to planned gifts!) : 

  • Why are they connected to your institution?
  • What were the factors in their life that led them to you?
  • Who influences them most at your organization?
  •  What is the impact on their life?

4.  Identify gifts that will be levers/positive influence for others. Do not underestimate the power of the influence of lead gifts!  Ask donors' permission to tell their story in publications and collateral. Publish them! (Re-telling the story helps to rekindle those good feelings and bonds.)

  •  Recognize these donors at milestone events and/or celebrations.
  • Help them share their happiness and passion through their own story-telling.

Please remember as you explore how you can utilize these tips in your own programs, true bonds are not formed without authenticity!  If you are not authentically and genuinely interested in the donor’s story, it is doubtful that real bonds will form.  Meaningful bonds are based on authenticity.

Our next blog will examine the secrets of forming bonds that are built on meaningful experiences and the drive for social connection.  Thanks for staying tuned!


[1] Giving USA 2016 Report

[2] Giving USA 2016 Report, p. 77

[3] “Scientists to Charities/You’re Doing It All Wrong” by Michael Anft, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 2015

[4] “Can Money Buy Happiness” by Andrew Blackman, The Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2014

[5] Social:  How Our Brain Are Wired To Connect, Matthew D. Lieberman, 2013.