The Provocateur Logo


Andrea McManus, ViTreo Group Inc
April 30th 2019

In last week’s Provocateur, guest blogger, U.K. based Bernard Ross, Director of =mc, discussed a topic critical to the fundraising world. Donor behaviour and how we must observe what they do, not what they say. On the heels of that, it’s an opportune time to dig deeper - into why donors act as they do, often in direct conflict with what they’ve just told us.

We’re complex beings and much of what forms our behaviour lies beneath the surface - of our brains. We think and believe wholeheartedly, that we make decisions and choices based on rational thought - after all, we are logical, rational creatures, aren’t we? Actually, no.


Science has shown us that, in conflict with popular beliefs about others and ourselves, most of the decisions we make every day are made from a more primal part of our brains.

"Contrary to what most of us would like to believe, decision-making may be a process handled to a large extent by unconscious mental activity. A team of scientists has unraveled how the brain actually unconsciously prepares our decisions. Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings.”

(Science Daily, Decision-making May Be Surprisingly Unconscious Activity, Max Planck-Gesellschaft, April 15 2008)

A few years ago, neuroscientist, psychologist and philosopher, Antonio Damasio, the long-time chair of the University of Iowa's neurology department, made a groundbreaking discovery, while studying people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. His research found that while all those studied seemed ‘normal’ in all other aspects, they were not able to experience emotions. Another unusual finding was that they had something else in common — they couldn’t make decisions. Although they were able to describe what their response should be in logical terms, it was challenging for them to make even the simplest of decisions. Decisions as simple as what to eat — chicken or turkey? With no rational way to decide, these test subjects were unable to arrive at a decision (Big Think, Decisions Are Largely Emotional, Not Logical: The Neuroscience Behind Decision-Making, Jim Camp, June 11 2012).

In his book, The Strange Order of Things, Damasio also talks about the fact that in spite of all the
hi-tech sophistication of modern life, we still cling to the primitive pleasure and reassurance of the domestic fireplace (The Guardian, The Strange Order of Things by Antonio Damasio Review – Why Feelings Are The Unstoppable Force, John Banville, February 2 2018).


Looking further into how our brains work — Dr. Uri Hasson, Director of Graduate Studies, gave a TEDTalk in 2016, What happens in the brain when we hear stories? Dr. Hasson runs The Hasson Lab at the Psychology Department and the Neuroscience Institute, Princeton University, where research is conducted on a growing trend in neuroscience towards the study of brain responses to natural real life events. The lab is working to develop “complementary paradigms to study the neural activity that drives human behaviour under natural and realistic conditions.”

From the TEDblog on Hassan’s TEDTalk:

“We may, as Joan Didion once wrote, tell ourselves stories in order to live—but Uri Hasson is looking for a few more reasons. The neuroscientist based at Princeton University researches the neurological basis of human communication and storytelling, and in session 11 at TED2016, he shows off some surprising findings.”

What Hassan found in his experiments is that our brains display similar activity when people hear the same story — he would record brain activity of several individuals before telling them a story and their brains would show different activity. Once the story began, their brain activity synced or aligned on the MRIs. To understand what causes the alignment, his team broke the story down into components:

“by first playing the story backward; then nonsense sounds put together into words; then scrambled sentences. At first the brains show a small amount of alignment, but not one that spreads deeper into the brain. Critically, it’s not until the listeners hear a real-life story that high-order areas like their frontal cortices begin to align.

The MRI shows similar brain activity in two people listening to the same real-life story.

What this shows is that alignment comes from more than just auditory information, says Hasson. In another experiment, Russian speakers and English speakers listened to the exact same story told in their respective languages, and brain activity still aligned.”

(TEDBlog, What Happens In The Brain When We Hear Stories? Uri Hassan at TED2016, Thu-Huong Ha, February 18 2016)

“These findings show that when we use story to communicate, and with the resulting alignment in brain activity, we build connection.” (Princeton Alumni Weekly, Clicking: How Our Brains Are in Sync, Katherine Hobson, April 11 2018)


So, for purposes of our fundraising world, when we connect the dots between the findings of these two scientists - emotion drives decision-making and storytelling builds connection and combine it with the fact we are still drawn to the “primitive pleasure and reassurance of the domestic fireplace” (today’s version of the caveman’s fire where our ancestors once gathered many thousands of years ago as discovered in the stories told by the first cave paintings), and if we believe that telling stories has been one of our most fundamental ways to communicate with each other for many thousands of years - it follows that the use of story in fundraising is critical to connection with our audiences.

This also supports the research done by Bernard Ross, Director of =mc, an internationally regarded expert in strategic thinking, organizational change and personal effectiveness, for the book he wrote with Omar Mahmoud, Global Head of Knowledge at UNICEF International, Change For Good, on decision making science and behavioural economics which he guest blogged about for us last week.

In his blog, Bernard tells us -

“Donors… make decisions based on emotion not reason, but they don’t like to admit it…One of the key tenets of behavioural economics is that people like to believe that they make decisions and judgements based on what’s called System Two – our objective rational worldview – when in fact they mostly make decisions based on System One – our intuitive emotional worldview…Sorry. Donors like to say they are both rational and emotional. The truth is that in philanthropic terms emotion wins every time”.

(The Provocateur, Stop Listening To Your Supporters, Why? They’re Just Trying To Rationalize (Tell You Rational-Lies), Bernard Ross, April 23 2019)

While it’s still critical to have the facts and data to back up our stories, the research shows it is the stories - not the data - which will win the hearts and minds of those we seek to inspire to support our cause and to give. Whoever tells the best story wins.

Check out ViTreo's Braintrust as we bring you additional insights into what is and what will be important in philanthropy through our Weekly News Recap and our Podcast.



Andrea McManus, Chair, Board of Directors, Partner
ViTreo Group Inc

Andrea McManus is a Partner with ViTreo with over 30 years’ experience in fund development, marketing, sponsorship and nonprofit management. A highly strategic thinker and change maker, Andrea has worked with organizations that span the nonprofit sector with particular focus on building long-term and sustainable capacity. 

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