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Why Dopamine Might Be the Secret to Motivating Supporters


By Will Schmidt

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When you set goals and achieve them, no matter how large or small they are, your brain is flooded with a chemical called dopamine. Early research associated this chemical only with pleasure, but it’s now been found to fire during multiple emotional states. Particularly, it fires before a reward is given.

A release of dopamine in the brain is linked directly to motivation. Experiencing this release, and subsequent motivation, is one way our brains push us to keep moving forward.

When you’re trying to motivate supporters to donate to your cause or fundraise on your behalf, a deeper understanding of dopamine can help you mobilize supporters. Here we’ll walk through what dopamine is, how you can foster an environment that sparks dopamine release, and how this motivates us.

Understanding Dopamine

Dopamine is a messenger molecule that lives in your brain and helps nerve cells communicate with one another. There’s still a large body of the scientific community conducting research on it, and for a long time it was thought to only be associated with pleasure.

However, we’re now finding that dopamine also affects central nervous system functions like movement, attention, mood, and pleasure. Perhaps most interestingly, dopamine levels are also strongly linked with motivation.

A team of scientists at Vanderbilt University showed that dopamine has a strong impact on your willingness to work. They analyzed the brain patterns of those willing to work hard for rewards against those who weren’t.

They found hard workers had higher levels of dopamine in the reward and motivation sections of their brains. Those not willing to work hard still had high levels of dopamine, but in the areas of the brain associated with emotion and risk.

It all boils back down to motivation. In this scenario, there are two groups of people both motivated by dopamine, but one is motivated to work hard while the other is motivated to stay away from hard work.

Dopamine levels continuously signal to us how good or valuable a current situation is with regard to a reward. In this way, the signal works as a cost-benefit analysis and helps people decide how vigorously to work towards a goal.

The trick is to ensure you light up the part of your supporters’ brains that deems a certain goal is worth the effort.

Highlight the Right Areas of the Brain

What’s interesting about dopamine is that it fires right before we obtain a reward. Thus, motivation happens when your dopamine spikes, because you anticipate something important is about to happen.

The brain can be trained to feed off these bursts of dopamine, which can motivate you to complete short or longer-term goals. But you have to create the proper dopamine environment for that to happen.

One way to do that is through incremental goal-setting and achievement. Dopamine flows as a result of your brain’s positive reinforcement every time you complete a step and meet a challenge.

When it comes to motivating your supporters throughout a campaign, you could try building a checklist and emailing it to them. For peer-to-peer fundraisers, this could look like a list of items to cross off as they create their new fundraising pages.

You could also use the Classy platform to trigger Milestone Emails that get delivered to fundraisers when they reach a certain percentage of their goal during a campaign. This motivates them to keep moving forward because they’re given a reward.

When you provide them with achievable incremental goals, you can encourage a steady stream of dopamine-fueled motivation. There are also larger ways your organization can elicit a dopamine response in supporters.

Foster a Dopamine-Friendly Environment

Aside from keeping supporters motivated to accomplish goals, you can create a general association where dopamine flourishes just from interacting with your brand. University of Michigan researchers Arif Hamid and Joshua Berke use the real world example of the McDonald’s sign as a predictor of a delicious, calorie-rich reward.

Consider the correlation here. People see the golden arches, smell the food, and think about the burgers and fries. Their brains are lit up with dopamine like a Christmas tree.

You can work to create a similar feeling among your supporters.

When people see your logo, what do they think about? What do they feel? Like McDonald’s, your logo could set off a flood of dopamine in someone’s brain that motivates them to partner with your mission and give on your behalf.

While the “reward” that McDonald’s conjures up is greasy food, the reward associated with your nonprofit could be an immense feeling of  accomplishment by helping people.

You can build this type of association by delivering consistent experiences that tie the act of giving to your nonprofit’s impact. Create a steady dopamine release among your supporters by committing to:

  • Celebrating large fundraising milestones with them
  • Thanking them for contributing to your campaign
  • Giving them copy to share on their social media networks after supporting your cause
  • Showing them the impact of their dollar
  • Reminding them how great it feels to make the commitment to help others

When you do all of this and more on a consistent basis, supporters are more likely to associate your brand with standing for something and making a difference.

At the end of the day, eliciting dopamine responses in your supporters—and even yourself—comes down to effort. How hard are you willing to work to create the right environment for dopamine to thrive? How well can you motivate your supporters to work with you? And if you’re stuck on your journey, never forget that good old fashioned perseverance and determination will also take you far.

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