In 2017, Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in economics for pointing out that people frequently behave irrationally, but consistently so, when dealing with money. While I don’t fully understand the work that won Thaler his singular honor, I can claim to experience the irrationality he has documented. It has been a phenomenon that has fascinated, and largely defeated, my thinking. It has also delighted my spirit since I have been working at The Dunn Gardens.
Like most nonprofits, The Dunn Gardens exists in large measure because of the kindness of donors. Before the Annual Appeal letter is sent out at the end of the year we think hard about how to present our request for continued support. Approaches have differed over time. This year our appeal card features a winsome 1901 Gibson Girl smiling for reasons explained on the inside.
I always wonder as the Annual Appeal letters slide into the mailbox, what it is that motivates people to give money to The Dunn Gardens. The answer is never truly clear when the donations come in. Sometimes a consistent donor does not send in a check. When that happens we speculate about what we may have done, or not done, recently that bothers the supporter. In contrast, we are also happily surprised when someone sends an unexpected donation, seemingly out of the blue.
Since I can’t divine the why to people’s giving I periodically circle back to Thaler’s endowment effect. In its simplest form, once you own something you value it more than before you owned it. I extrapolate that donors are willing to give to the garden because they feel they “own” a little bit of it. Not materially, of course, but certainly emotionally.
I make this claim because we consistently observe that once folks are in the garden they seldom want to leave; wedding parties have to shoo out guests reluctant to depart, members return for each open day and tour visitors linger afterwards with their cameras. It does not take long for the garden to seduce newcomers and refresh those who are familiar with her charms. Such an experience, I have come to believe, results in a feeling of belonging and a satisfying emotional connection.
Thaler would call this connection a nudge. When we request the funds that keep us operating, donors respond to this nudge or the emotional ownership they feel and the gift is an expression of that.
Undoubtedly, my theory has holes but what I can say with confidence is that donations provide an incalculable boost to those of us who work on behalf of The Dunn Gardens. Irrespective of the amount, the gift represents faith that what we do is worth the time and we are doing it well enough to warrant support. If that response is another version of irrational I will accept it happily. Whatever the reason for giving be assured The Dunn Gardens is most appreciative of your support.