Your Brain on Philanthropy: Cognitive Ease

I was chafing a bit the other day over the realization that in order to be most effective at my job, I need to talk about giving and gifts in the simplest way possible. I’ve learned so much about the complexities of ways to donate, of why people donate, of the great scientific work being done by folks in my organization, and the idea of not being able to talk deeply about all those things with people I’m trying to engage as donors felt… disappointing. Deflating? All this complexity and depth is fascinating and don’t donors want to know all this great information about an organization they’re thinking of giving to?!

The answer is no, they don’t. Neither do I, as a donor!

There’s a bias called Cognitive Ease which describes the reality that we feel more favorably towards things we can understand, or towards those things and ideas that are simpler to understand. We feel less favorably towards things that are difficult to understand or that are unfamiliar. (If something is easy to understand, that’s because it has certain things about it that are familiar to us — it is an extension of belief or knowledge we already have, or fits cleanly within our existing worldview.)

Kahneman found several things in particular that contribute to our cognitive ease: clear font (!!), being primed to think about the ideas, being in a good mood (!!), and simple language. The opposite of cognitive ease, cognitive strain, is triggered when the font is confusing, the ideas are too new, we’re in a bad mood, or the language used to describe it is too complex. (Thinking Fast and Slow, 59)

I love his simple diagram that shows what contributes to cognitive ease:

I recreated the diagram on page 60 in PowerPoint BECAUSE I AM A TECH GODDESS WHO IS ALL-CAPABLE.

There are several things I already do to “warm” donors up to the idea of making a gift: engaging them multiple times with people in my org and the work we do, making sure they get a chance to read stories of our work in impact reports and relevant news stories, sharing stories of other donors who have made a difference, and making sure our interactions are as positive as possible to put them in a good mood.

But I hadn’t really been willing to change how I talk about what we and what donors could do. I think my pride and ego, and my own cognitive investment, were getting in the way. (Another blog post for another time.)

Simplifying my language doesn’t equal “dumbing down” the way I talk about philanthropy or the work of my organization. What it means is I just need to be ready to speak in plain, simple terms if that is what speaks best to the donor. I need to be ready to speak to beginners, while also being ready to speak to experts. Some donors are old hats at philanthropy; some may be new to it. Regardless of their level of experience, every donor is coming somewhat new to any particular gift, and the way I can be most effective and helpful is by making the process and the impact easy to understand, to make it feel as familiar as possible.

I think that’s part of what makes being a fundraiser so much fun, for those of us who truly love people and find them fascinating — I get to meet a wide variety of people and I get to meet them exactly where they are, to discover what makes them excited and impassioned about making a difference in the world, and to discover the ways in which they’ve already thought about it. The better I can be sensitive and responsive to someone’s level of cognitive ease, the more effectively and authentically I can inspire excitement in them to do something new, transformational, and difference-making with my organization.


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