Emotions in legacies and bequests

publication date: Jan 23, 2017
 | 
author/source: Francesco Ambrogetti

Francesco AmbrogettiThe decision to donate part or all of one's inheritance is very closely tied to emotions. In this excerpt from the English Edition of his book, Emotionraising, Francesco Ambrogetti shares the research that demonstrates that telling the life stories of donors is a powerful mechanism to engage donors to consider leaving a legacy to a nonprofit organization.

Legacies can be the biggest source of fundraising and charitable income for many nonprofit organizations.

•       In the U.K., legacies to charities represents £2 billion each year.
•       In the U.S.A., legacies amounts to $19 billion a year.
•       In Canada, legacies represent $1 billion a year.
•       In Italy, it’s estimated that between 2004 and 2020, legacies to nonprofits will amount to €105 billion.  

As Richard Radcliffe, the worldwide expert on legacy fundraising, reminds us, each culture, religion and country has different legacy-giving traditions. In most developed countries, and in Anglo-Saxon countries, 45–50% of adults at any given time have a Will in place. However, there are exceptions to the rule and in some parts of Europe, and, due to Napoleonic inheritance laws, there is little motivation to make a Will because legally there are definitive rules concerning family inheritance. In France, for example, only about 5% of the adult population have a Will.

Leaving an inheritance to charity and emotions

Nobody has spent more of their life and career investigating the role of emotions and how the brain works in the process of making a Will or leaving a legacy to charities than Russel N. James, Professor at Texas Tech University. He has discovered that when we are involved in the act of decision-making around a legacy, there are two regions of the brain that are particularly active, more than others: the lingual gyrus and precuneus

In a study in which older adults were shown photographs from throughout their lives, precuneus and lingual gyrus activation occurred when they were able to vividly relive events in the photos, but not where scenes were only vaguely familiar.[1] In other studies, both regions were simultaneously activated by mentally “traveling back in time”[2] or recalling autobiographical personal events.[3]

This suggests, according to James, that telling the life stories of donors who will live beyond their death through their legacy giving is a very powerful mechanism to engage donors to consider leaving a legacy to a nonprofit organization. 

A second important element is the finding that legacies to friends and family (vs. charitable legacies) more heavily involve brain regions of emotion (mid/posterior cingulate cortex; insula) and memory (hippocampus).This also suggests that reminding donors of life story connections of friends/family with the charity/cause and providing tribute legacy opportunities. In a 2014 survey cited by James, one in four people polled increased their intention to leave a charitable bequest when given the option to honour a friend or family member by making a memorial gift to charity in their Will.

Overcoming obstacles in discussing death

The main obstacle to leaving a legacy is our simple avoidance of talking about a legacy because it is a reminder of our own death. In fact, the first stage of defense to death reminders is avoidance. James therefore suggests that since the topic of legacies—a reminder of death—is subconsciously aversive, we need to combine the idea of leaving a legacy with more attractive topics to sidestep the initial avoidance response. For instance, using stories about the work of the nonprofit and focusing on the support of legacy donors who make it happen can help overcome this first stage of defense.

The second stage of defense to death reminders that naturally happens when we talk about the possibility of leaving a legacy is to seek symbolic immortality by supporting one’s “in-group” community. This means that the death reminder increases the desire for fame and the perception of one’s past significance (Landau, Greenberg, & Sullivan, 2009[4]). 

This suggests, according to James, that when we promote the opportunity to leave a legacy to a charity we should also provide the idea that a legacy is connected with permanence. Permanence is psychologically attractive because it is something reflecting a sort of autobiographical heroism, through the person’s life story (community and values).

In previous surveys, among people expressing a difference in preference, more than half wanted permanence for their legacy than for current gifts. Between the options of the legacy gift going to “an immediate expenditure of all funds to advance the cause of the charity” and “the establishment of a permanent fund generating perpetual income to advance the cause of the charity forever,” the latter was much more preferred.

Francesco Ambrogetti is Marketing and Fundraising Director for UNICEF Italy. He is also a Professor of Fundraising at Bologna University and a frequent speaker at international fundraising congresses.

Click here, to learn more about EMOTIONRAISING - How to astonish, disturb, seduce and convince the brain to support good causes.


[1] Moscovitch, Morris, R.; Shayna Rosenbaum; Asaf Gilboa; Donna Rose Addis; Robyn Westmacott: “Functional neuroanatomy of remote episodic, semantic and spatial memory: A unified account based on multiple trace theory,” Journal of Anatomy, July 2005, 207(1): 35–66.

[2]Armelle Viard; Gael Chetelat; Karine Lebreton; Beatrice Desgranges; Brigitte Landeau; et al.: “Mental time travel into the past and the future in healthy aged adults: An fMRI study,” Brain and Cognition, Elsevier, 2011, 75 (1), pages 1-9.

[3] Denkova, E.; Botzung, A.; Scheiber, C.; Manning, L.: “2006 Implicit emotion during recollection of past events: A nonverbal fMRI study,” Brain Research, 1078143–150.150

[4] Landau, Greenberg, & Sullivan ,Toward Understanding the Fame Game: The Effect of Mortality Salience on the Appeal of Fame, Self and Identity, 9: 1–18, 2010



Like this article?  Join our mailing list for more great information!


Copyright, Hilborn Stanois Inc., © 2011-Current. All rights reserved.

Free Fundraising Newsletter
Join Our Mailing List
Join Our Mailing List

Hilborn:ecs