What motivates people to leave a charitable gift in a will?
Dr Russell James, Original Article found on charityfinancials.com
A gift is a gift, but is the thought process behind making a charitable gift in your will different from making a gift right now? Recent research findings say it is.
In our neuroimaging lab at Texas Tech we asked people to make decisions about volunteering, donating now, and donating in a will; all while taking pictures of their brains. We found the will donation decision generated a distinct neural signature. Specifically, when people made decisions about donating in a will they appeared to engage in ‘visualised autobiography’. Brain activations indicated that the will decision involves taking an outside perspective on oneself while generating internal visualisation.
The connection between gifts in wills and autobiography is not new; you don’t even need a brain scanner to see it. Dr Claire Routley of Plymouth University took a more direct approach to learning what motivates people to leave a gift in a will – she asked them directly.
After conducting a long series of interviews with British donors who had named charities in their wills, Dr Routley, along with Dr Adrian Sargeant, concluded: “Our research indicates that connections to particular causes were developed throughout the lives of bequest givers, and it was a desire to reflect this life history that influenced the selection of charities, rather than a wish to help those most in need.”1
In addition to the importance of life stories, other research has found that social norms are also powerful. In research conducted by the Behavioral Insights Team for the Cabinet Office, asking will makers if they would “like to leave any money to charity in your will?” more than doubled the share of people including a gift as compared to not raising the question at all. When the question was phrased as, “many of our customers like to leave money to charity in their will. Are there any causes you’re passionate about?” the participation rate more than tripled. We found similar results in the U.S. where people were more interested in making a gift in a will if they were first told, “many people like to leave a gift to charity in their will”.
Can both life stories and social norms be used at the same time? Yes. In the U.S. study, people were even more interested in making a gift in a will if the previous social norm statement ended with “because they care about causes that are important in their lives”. More directly, donor stories that connect the donor’s life story with their planned gift in a will set a social norm through life story examples. In a recent U.S. study, these types of brief donor stories were more effective at increasing interest in bequest giving than all other interventions tested.
Both life stories and social norms are key motivators to include a gift to charity in a will. But what are the biggest barriers? Death, family, and technical language. Death is a barrier, because people don’t like thinking about their own death. This avoidance can lead people to permanently delay drafting their wills, and without a will there can be no charitable gift. Similarly, marketing language that emphasises death routinely performs poorly. For example, otherwise identical deceased bequest donor stories did not perform as well as stories of living donors who had merely planned such a gift. Family is usually the most common competitor for funds from the estate, thus the most powerful statistical indicator predicting the likelihood of leaving a charitable bequest is childlessness. Finally, technical language can discourage gifting. People are much more interested in simply making a “gift in a will” than in leaving a “bequest gift”, “estate gift”, or adding a “charitable codicil”.
1 Routely, C., & Sargeant, A. (2014). Leaving a Bequest: Living on Through Charitable Gifts. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.