It is well known that, given the choice, younger people will opt to meet new people and participate in new experiences as opposed to spending time with a sibling or other family members. Conversely, older folks tend to prefer spending time with those closest to them – family, long-held friends, etc. – as opposed to expanding their circle of friends or seeking new adventures. A macro-level task of youth, it would appear, is to expand boundaries, friend networks, and experiences. Meanwhile, the task of old age, it seems, is to embrace those family, friends, and patterns of behavior most comforting to us.
But why does this shift in mindset from expansion to contraction happen as we age? Stanford Center on Longevity Director, Laura Carstensen, has a theory. Over the last 20 years she has researched this psychological phenomenon extensively. And, here is what she has found: It is not necessarily age that causes us to become more focused on and desire to spend more time with the ones closest to us – the ones we love. Instead, it is our perspective – our individual sense of how much time we have left in this world. Regardless of age, it appears, when we are confronted with the limits of our own lifespan, we tend to home in on what is most important – our deep and abiding relationships with family and friends and the activities that bring us most meaning, joy, and comfort.
Tucked away in Professor Carstensen’s research on longevity is a gem of insight for development professionals. Simply put, the more we can remind people about the value of a life well-lived, about what brings meaning to their lives, and about what matters most to them, the more open they will be to considering supporting causes bigger than themselves. This is not to say, of course, that we should engage our donors in depressing and morbid discussions about the brevity of human life!
However, Professor Carstensen’s work should serve to remind us that our individual and unique perspectives on life and longevity impact our decision-making and behavior in profound ways. Perhaps our role as development professionals should be far less about asking people to support our cause and far more about inviting people to consider what lasting impact they want for their lives. Instead of asking questions to glean more about their financial capacity, it may be that encouraging conversations about what is deeply meaningful and gives purpose to their lives will more effectively trigger their generosity.
We often ask our donors questions about why they chose to support our institutions and organizations in the first place. Or, what they think about our proposed new program or facility expansion. And these are fine questions. But, first and foremost, they are questions about us, our institutions, and, our plans. If we would consistently turn the questions around and ask about them, as whole and complex individuals, we would pour the relational concrete for a strong gift-giving foundation. Questions like: “As you think back on your accomplishments, to what or to whom do you attribute your greatest successes?” Or, “Tell me about the most meaningful gift you’ve ever made.”
Not only will such an approach provide us with rich, deeply-personal information about our donors, it also gets them thinking about what and who is truly important to them and how giving is good. This approach also does something else that is powerful: It clearly communicates the message that, “your perspective matters to me. What is meaningful to you, is important to me.” And that message is what enhances trust between human beings.
It’s not a bad thing to be reminded that each of us has precious little time on this earth and that we should focus more on meaning and what matters most – people, experiences, and how our lives can leave a lasting, positive impact. In fact, encouraging others to reflect on this fact just may be critical to inspiring their generosity.