NEW IDEAS: Charitable giving as a route to ‘immortality’

For many people, money plays a symbolic as well as an economic role, helping them to achieve a form of immortality. Claire Routley explains how fundraisers can help donors to live on through the money they giving to charity.

As fundraisers, money is at the very heart of what we do. Rogare’s manager Ian MacQuillin summed up the situation very well at a talk for the Institute of Fundraising earlier this year: however much we like to tell ourselves that what we do is about building relationships, growing awareness or changing opinions, unless those actions lead to more money for our causes, they are essentially a waste of a fundraiser’s time.

Despite thinking about money every day of our working lives – how to get more of it while spending less of it – it’s rare for us to have the time to step back and think about what money means for those people who give it to us. As part of a recent article professor Adrian Sargeant and I got to do just that, reflecting on what the giving away of wealth and possessions means to bequest donors. As part of our research, we came across some fascinating articles about attitudes towards money that would have implications for wider fundraising.

“When we ask people to give their money away, we are asking them to give away something of themselves – and even more significantly, to give us something of their shot at immortality.”

One of the most significant insights from this literature is on the symbolic value of money. We may imagine money to be a purely economic unit, but alongside its economic purchasing power, money carries with it symbolic value. For example, Tonya Williams Bradford of University of Notre Dame in Indiana describes how money can signify personal relationships when it’s passed on through the generations. Some researchers even describe money as having sacred meanings. Money, in this research, is ‘sacred’ because of its potential to transform.

Money also plays a particular role within our self-concept. The psychiatry literature suggests that we may equate our monetary value with our value as a person. Darach Turley, professor of marketing at Dublin University, argues that money provides protection from death, with much of what we buy acting as a way of freeing ourselves from what might eventually present a danger to us. As well as providing literal protection from death through its purchasing power, money also plays a symbolic role in helping us to achieve a sense of permanence in the face of our own mortality: the acquisition of wealth is, according to Turley, a culturally-sanctioned project to achieve a type of permanence for ourselves. Indeed, dreams about finding money have been interpreted in the psychoanalytic literature as expressing a denial of death.

As fundraisers, then, when we ask people to give their money away, we are asking for something very profound. We are asking them to give away something of themselves – and even more significantly, to give us something of their shot at immortality.

What does this mean for fundraising practice?

The research implies that a donor needs to get greater immortality value from giving a gift to our charities than they do from holding on to their money, or spending it on themselves. We need to show our donors, therefore, the transformative impact that their gifts will make and the long-term effect that their giving will have.

One way in which fundraisers already deliver amazing immortality value is through products such as child sponsorship. The donor gets to make an impact on a life that will, most likely, extend beyond their own, and potentially on subsequent generations who are raised out of poverty. The also get to develop a one-to-one relationship with a child, ensuring that not only their impact but also their memory will live on long into the future. Another simple immortality device is the classic ‘buy a brick’-type of scheme where a donor’s name will literally continue indefinitely.

This ‘immortality value’ can be added right across the process of gift-giving, from the solicitation, to the thank you to the longer-term stewardship we offer, and potentially across the giving spectrum from cash givers, to major donors – and of course, to those who are considering a legacy gift.

By incorporating an understanding of the symbolic value of money within our fundraising practice, we can show our donors how their gifts will enable them to have an impact that will reach beyond their lifespan, enabling them to trust us with their piece of immortality.

  • Claire Routley is a legacy fundraising consultant and a member of Rogare’s advisory panel.



One thought on “NEW IDEAS: Charitable giving as a route to ‘immortality’”

  1. Interesting article Claire. In some ways, funds raised is a side-effect of a fundraisers work. What you suggest means we are in the business of asking for a much deeper transaction than someone signing a cheque, or even visiting a wills solicitor. Something to ponder on when we wonder why people say ‘No’, and all the more important when they say ‘Yes’, as their gift is probably much more than the number after the pound sign.


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