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Why People Donate

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been taking meditation and mindfulness classes at the Austin Zen Center. I started because of my interest in the neurological benefits of meditation, and stayed for the amazing people. It seems like every day I’m there, new ideas crop up about what mindfulness means within the context of social-emotional learning and how I can apply it to the Great Exchange. I’m especially interested in doing some research on mindfulness and Autism.

Anyway, while I came to the Zen Center prepared to experience epiphanies about the brain, myself, relationships, and our collective role as members of the same planet, I wasn’t prepared to hear the most concise explanation I’ve ever heard for why people donate to a charity or organization. One Saturday, after a meditation sitting and a Dharma Talk (a relatively nonsecular sermon about how we can become more compassionate) the Head Priest stood up to make some announcements. And at the end he asked, very humbly, for people to donate to the Zen Center if they had the means to do so. And he said something along the lines of, “I’m not saying this to get you to donate, but I’d like to point out how many people feel committed after giving a donation. And when you feel committed, you feel like you belong to that community.”

It was the softest “ask” I’ve ever heard, but the link from financial contribution to commitment to connection struck a chord with me, and I donated.

To raise money for a nonprofit, you combine a lot of storytelling with hard numbers; you’ll zoom in on one clear image of a person who was deeply impacted by your organization, and you’ll tell the story compassionately. People connect to this. You can then back your impact up with data, to prove that the one story isn’t an anomaly, and to infer that if you zoom out from there, you’ll hit many other data points that tell a similar story. That’s how we raise money, and we know this. But a more fundamental question to ask is, why does that work? And I think you’re selling the explanation short if you say that it simply appeals to a person’s emotions and moves them to act.

At the heart of the matter, I think, it’s that need to connect. People give because they want to be part of something; and if they donate to your nonprofit, then that “something” is your community. That’s really, really special. So in a way, your goal as a nonprofit organization isn’t just to help your clients heal and grow and learn; it’s to help your donors heal and grow and learn, too. Because we’re all just people and we all want to connect to each other.

At the end of a recent Thursday-night class at the Zen Center, my teacher read us this poem by Hafiz:

“Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
‘Love me.’
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye

That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
Language,
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear?”

I think it would be really revolutionary to let businesses and nonprofits start speaking that sweet moon language, too.

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