WHAT THE FUNDRAISING
30: Giving Moments: What Moments Really Matter to a Donor and Why? with Francesco Ambrogetti
“We know asking is the rule number one. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. But if that’s the only interaction you got, you’re going to lose.”
– Francesco Ambrogetti
In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…
I met with an incredible guest, Francesco Ambrogetti, who leads Supporter Engagement for UNICEF worldwide. He has over 20 years’ international experience and has worked for organizations like the WWF, MSF, and the Red Cross World Bank across four different continents. His most recent book, Hooked on a Feeling, inspired this episode as it dives deep into the neuroscience of fundraising, and explores the fundraising and donor behavior phenomenon not typically explained (but highly relevant) to all of your fundraising activities.
In this episode, we’re covering many topics inside this amazing book, like how memory works and the way dopamine and serotonin actually shape the donor’s experience (and the likelihood the donor will stay involved in the organization in an ongoing way).
For example, we are often told to make a thank you call to a donor within 48 hours because of its impact on donor retention, but do you know WHY it has such an impact? Listen to this episode to learn the science behind that fundraising recommendation, and many new science-backed strategies and tips that will change your fundraising immediately!
Tips and Tools to Implement Today
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I teach nonprofit fundraisers to bring in more gifts from the RIGHT donors… so they can stop hounding people for money. Fundraising doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.
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Mallory: Hello and welcome everyone. I am so honored to be here today with Francesco Ambrogetti. Francesco, I read Hooked on a Feeling. It was recommended to me by a friend and I just devoured the book. Honestly, I think it is so brilliant the way that you explore fundraising and the donor experience from a neuroscience perspective, and you give us all these incredible case studies.
I know we’re going to talk about a lot of those pieces today, but first I’d love to just have you give a little introduction to your work and what brings you to this moment in time and what inspired you to write this book and your first book Emotionraising.
Francesco: Thank you, Mallory. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me. I’ve been in various parts of the world to be honest, in the last 20 years. I’ve lived on four continents, and worked for all sorts of organizations. I got into neuroscience because it’s in all of us. I tried to understand better the science of how people behave and where does our sense of giving money come from.
It’s pretty strange. If you think about it rationally, somebody stops you in the street or over the phone for an hour, and you just decide to give your credit card. So why does that happen? How does it happen? I think too often we’re very much biased by our own opinion, which is important, but sometimes science is science.
So neuroscience, which is a very broad evolving field, helps us to understand better why we’re generous. From there, I just worked with many pioneers. I’ve also been into the labs to see into the brain, how it works in practice. It’s fascinating because in a sense is counter intuitive, but on the other side it confirmed many things that we know as fundraising, that we learned from the practice. So that’s brought me to where I am now with the second book. It has been written during the pandemic.
I just came with the opportunity to spend more time writing, but basically it’s 20 years of research and practice -particularly with Hooked on a Feeling- to understand that emotions push us and drive us to do the sort of immediate thing.
But the point is that most of the donors just forget. So the point that we all struggle with is are we going to keep these people giving? How are we going to make them more active? So this book is trying to answer some of these questions. Commerce and business are the same. How to keep customers? How Netflix keeps people hooked to their shows and Nike keeps getting people buying them. They have the same issues that we have.
They are a bit more advanced because they are more documented, they have more insights. But the question is still the same. Attracting somebody to your shop, to your website or writing the check is tough, but you can get there, repeat that, and even more, you can turn somebody into your advocate. So they’ll not only write a check, they’ll say “Oh, you’re that organization is amazing.
Mallory: That’s completely wonderful. When I read your book and was learning about the different chemicals that are released in the brain during different types of asks and giving experiences, I found that to be really fascinating. I’ve interviewed other folks on the podcast like Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, but you lay it out in terms of “When this type of giving experience happens, this is what chemical is being released in the brain”. So can you talk to us about that? Just a little breakdown of that neuroscience.
Francesco: Yes, to be honest, the original inspiration is from Seth Godin, who has this incredibly clear way to put things if you follow. He says “Pleasure and happiness are two different things”. And that’s exactly what dopamine and serotonin are. Two different chemicals.
You can have a lot of pleasure in donating. While we are donating, there are a number of chemicals that our brain releases. We feel good and that’s the reason why we’re giving. We feel so stressed, sewing pain, so upset that their donation makes us feel physically good.
You can measure, in fact, the level of this oxytocin hormone that women release when they give birth and it makes you feel very empathetic. You want to hug everybody. It’s a chemical thing. So when we donate, that level of oxytocin determines how much you are going to give.
That’s very immediate. The dopamine rush when you get a like on your post is immediate and addictive. The donation pleasure part works like that. That’s why you want to repeat the same thing, because they give you the same rush of dopamine and oxytocin. It’s like any other hormones, you have to recreate exactly the same thing that you first experienced and it’s difficult to reactivate the same type, but the brain expects the same.
The happiness part is more of a long term. We feel much better when we get the serotonin, which is a long-term thing. In fact, if you get a low level of serotonin, then it’s going to get provided through artificial chemicals. Your doctor will prescribe some. It actually can lead to serious problems like depression.
It’s a long-term chemical to make you feel better, but it’s not a totally different mechanism. It’s not as immediacy of connectivity as a dopamine rush and oxytocin. But it’s more about longer release of feel-good based on the memory. So I feel something that is good consistently and regularly and it fits with my values and what I believe… I want to do more.
I always say, when I’m supporting a team, I don’t need to be retold “Go and buy the tickets, go buy the merchandise”. Because I have so many memories linked from going to the stadium with my dad or the great moment I had shared with my friends. Being that supporter made me feel good, long-term. It’s not actually the pleasure part when you go to the game, or at least is sometimes not there. But being a supporter, that made me feel good.
Mallory: Okay. I’m really interested in going a little bit deeper on this memory piece for a second and what that means for nonprofits. Isn’t that what their goal should be? Perhaps if they have an urgent scenario, for example, whether that urgent scenario is related to an urgent need or perhaps attention on an issue where the issue itself has been happening for a long time, but there’s a lot of media coverage, for example. So they have this moment. Is the goal then in that moment to create a sort of easy action dopamine experience and then follow up with a serotonin based experience? I’m probably using the wrong language.
Francesco: Exactly. So to break the wall of attention we are all bombarded by the media, you need to connect through a story. You cannot just get this through convincing or what the organization does. You need to have a human story that connects to people. That’s how you get attention. That’s they’re going to get that oxytocin and dopamine release. The best stories we got, the more people you got to get connected and donate.
That’s good, but it’s not enough. Too often, we assume that this is it. So, how much you donate how often you donate, the RFM analysis is going to categorize your business on the front stock. That’s the first step. That you donate $20. So $2,000 doesn’t mean anything as a person. So, once you get that, how am I going to create, from that moment, such an amazing experience for you, Mallory? You’re a mom of a two-year-old, you have certain values and you support certain courses or teams, so if I know you better, I can make this experience of supporting me memorable. Because it’s memorable for you, not in general. That’s the fundamental step. Once I hook you through the dopamine, I just need to create an experience or a series of experiences.
They are seeking your memory because you are a unique individual and therefore you become normally supporting the cause because it’s part of where you are, but I need to know you first. If I don’t know you, I’m still assuming that the $10 are that same $10.
Mallory: So I think one of the things I hear you saying is that, as fundraisers, we often assume after the first donation that the donor identifies with our organization in a way that they have that identity piece.
And so we start to talk to them as if they’re already there. We give them the impact report, but we miss this whole piece around building that relationship. They’ve actually only opened the door and yes, money came through, but they really just opened the door. And now is our opportunity to invite them in, using a memory based, a serotonin based experience, really built around “Why are we inviting them through the door?”.
Francesco: That’s correct. And in fact, this is the piece that we often miss. I think people that are major donors are more geared up towards it because they need to build a personal relationship so it’s more time researching and understanding. But this should be for every piece of fundraising. So the first thing should be exactly to get more understanding of who you are so that creates personal experience like Amazon does, like Nike does, like the football team does. Exactly that. So you are not anybody. Just to give you an example, and this is again, science and results. So in many UNICEF offices, one of the first things we do is a very welcoming unscripted ‘Thank you’. And then a very simple, sometimes also automated thing that asks “How much are you committed to UNICEF?”.
So how much more are you likely donating in the future? and how much you’re happy or satisfied about that experience that you have today in donating to the website? It sounds very simple, but those two indicators, the level of commitment and satisfaction drive the more long-term. So those who are more committed and more satisfied, they’ll stick longer.
Is not just pure guessing. If you start assuming that after that $10 they’ll give you more because ‘this is important’, you haven’t created any magic in the relationship. And I think that’s the missing part.
Going back to your question about memory. How we form our memory is through reinforcements. Memories are very selective. For various reasons, we keep very little things and those things are the peak moments where we should try to concentrate. So how are we going to make sure that the beginning of that path after you give is fantastic and memorable? What are those peaks that we can just really push and celebrate so that you remember? And even the end is the most neglected part of our relationship. We just let too many donors go.
Mallory: Wow. You’re making me think about these collective giving moments that happen across the nonprofit, like Giving Tuesday or Community Giving Day and we see metrics that demonstrate higher retention rates, for example, after a new donor gives on Giving Tuesday than on a different day, on a different random day. And there’s always for me, this question around the chicken and the egg. is that because the organization did a better job celebrating Giving Tuesday success with their supporters and so it cemented this deeper memory because they put more energy and more engagement around this whole end to end process of fundraising around Giving Tuesday versus someone who just donated on some random Wednesday, or is it because there’s something about the collective day of giving or an X Moment that is actually solidifying the memory in a bigger way at the beginning? What do you think?
Francesco: Being part of a community and the social proof is a great motivation, right? Celebration of a religious moment like Christmas or Diwali are big drivers. One of the most underestimated is birthdays. As you’re part of the community, we all want to celebrate with you because you are important to us.
One of the successes of the Facebook challenges is that you are part of a community on Facebook. So you have to create that as a sort of a social proof moment in which you are part of it. But as I said, if you just know your donors, the idea is to just simply say “I just call (or I just write) to wish you Happy Diwali or Merry Christmas this year, you’ve been important”, just that, instead of saying “It’s Christmas, we need money”. That simple interaction is a major driver.
You create around an event. An event that is relevant for you, not for the organization, You create moments that are relevant for that group of supporters, specifically. Sometimes we are driving from the organization to the owner saying “This campaign is important for us, contribute” instead of saying “What is important for you? What are the most important things in your set of beliefs where I can create the moments that are relevant for you?”, maybe not for others, right? That’s the big difference.
Mallory: Okay. I love that. I talk a lot here about Funder Lenses and empathy, real empathy. I feel like in the nonprofit sector, we often say the word empathy, but we don’t really use empathy in relation to our donors that often. We don’t sit in their seats and actually think about their experience. And oftentimes I feel like this comes from the hustle that so many -especially small or mid-sized- nonprofits are facing and feeling a sense of scarcity mindset, which can give us tunnel vision.
We’re just trying to get that next email out, but we don’t then take that moment to be in the other person’s shoes and ask exactly what you’re saying, which I think is so critical. What is important to them? What’s the experience? And I feel like there’s been a little bit of a polarization in our sector between donor-centric fundraising and community-centric fundraising. And I really believe that neuroscience can’t be ignored. These are human experiences that are really important. And that there are ways to do them and build them in community centric ways that really provide equitable fundraising practices for your organization. What do you think about that?
Francesco: Absolutely. If you bother talking to your donors and know them better and what they really care about, then you’re not gonna have a racist donor or white savior donor. Maybe they donated, but they don’t really belong there. You need to bother to just know them and not assume that everybody is the same.
I always remember this and it’s in the book. With the birthday, it’s such a simple thing, right? A birthday call to just say “Mallory, you’re such a fantastic supporter for us. I just called to say happy birthday”, no ask, that’s it. We prove it with data. Those that receive it have a much higher lifetime value. Just for a birthday call.
In today’s world, who bothers to call you? Not to write an email or a message, to call you. A proper call. For many people -and we have a large number of very old donors- that was an amazing surprise. Nobody called them to say ‘happy birthday’. It’s that simple and it’s that relevant. Just to be real and personal makes all the difference in the world because it’s relevant for those people and is relevant because you are with them in that moment of their life.
Mallory: Wow. I think something that you’re touching on that I just think is so important is that there’s the giving moment, the moment where the act of giving happens. And that is related to the moments that often get minimized, sideswiped, thought about as extras.
Back to this peak-end rule piece, can we talk a little bit more about the peaks that cement our memory? Would you suggest that for a fundraiser, for an organization that those peaks are all related to moments where there is no ask? Or can there be peaks -as folks are thinking about their donor journey- can there be peaks that are directly related to giving or should they all be related to giving? Just talk to me a little bit about that.
Francesco: No, they could, but only if they flow naturally with that moment. For instance, with the birthday call, very often the donor would say “It’s so nice. I want to make an extra donation”, and so that happened at Christmas. So it can be built in and tested. But also, if it is very part of your journey, it can flow naturally without even asking. And that seems to contradict the asking piece. For instance, you could think about legacy. Legacy is a very long shot. You have people interested, then you cultivate and this can take on forever. Until then you’re going to get that piece of legacy cashing.
So that’s the same thing. So where is the asking in this peak moment? It has to be built and tested depending on the type of moments in the journey, but also talking about cash. If you start seeing that even if you don’t ask, you monetize in better retention. Even if we don’t ask, the balance has increased, the retention has increased. There is a value in doing this. It’s not just asking that makes a big difference.
Mallory: I really appreciate that. And I think it’s such an important thing. I’m very curious now to explore the relationship between non-ask moments around maybe it’s a community giving day or Giving Tuesday, or end of year. I’m fascinated by the giving that happens on December 31st.
It doesn’t really make sense to me. Is it that they’re just getting such a high traffic of emails? Are really people sitting being like, “I want to make sure to get this donation in before the clock strikes 12?”. Given the fact that so many organizations aren’t implementing the principles that you’re talking about here, we see across the board, this massive spike on December 31st. How do you explain that?
Francesco: Yeah, because giving is not rational. I don’t want to say ‘irrational’, just predictably irrational. Exactly. Because it makes no sense. But it also makes no sense to make our list exactly on the 31st. To say “From January 1st, I’m going to start to go to gym”. It doesn’t make sense in my opinion. Why are you doing it on the 31st? It’s totally artificial. So we need to accept this sort of irrationality, but also be able to take advantage in the most positive way.
And be ‘karma’ or be ‘gratitude’ or be ‘fear’. This is how we humans are. These are what drive us to do things we do. So that’s why it’s important to have this peak moment, right? What are you going to celebrate their life? What are you going to celebrate that makes sense for your supporters?
And now this celebration can measure the behavior that is increasing gifting, increasing average, increasing retention, because per se is purposeless. But if you bother to just say “Look, through this journey through this moment I can see there is better retention”, you start realizing the value that is not simply in the ask.
I think the asking piece has been too much on the transaction side. We know asking is the rule number one, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. But if that’s the only interaction you got, you’re going to lose. If the only thing you do is keep asking and asking more and you don’t care if people don’t respond and you don’t fire people up because there are still more people who can be asked, it just becomes a race to the bottom.
And I really think that I struggle right now that I’m a part of a transformation into a digital world, new CRM. I struggle to just see this. Mentality is very much still transactional. We still look at the donor through the recency, frequency, monetary criteria. And it is important, but If we don’t just build upon the human side, we really risk to see a reality that doesn’t correspond. People that give $10 and $10 are not the same. We need to really start looking at what drives people to donate and to belong to your organization. I think this is the weak link in our sector. This makes a big difference.
Mallory: This might’ve been in the book, but I’m curious about your experience studying or looking at the relationship between memory and motivation. I’m thinking about an episode we did with Dr. BJ Fogg on habits and behavior. And so the Fogg Behavior Model is the relationship between motivation ability and then a prompt and how much motivation you have. He defines that motivation goes up, as hope goes up. And then how easy is the action to take? So that goes to how easy is your donation form on the site, but also are you asking within the ability level of that person? Are you asking someone who can’t give a million dollars for a million dollars?
And then of course, that they’re actually being asked, that they’re actually being prompted. I’m thinking about the story you told about the sports team and how you don’t need to be prompted all the time, because it’s in your memory. So I’m trying to think about the relationship between memory and motivation. What do you think about that?
Francesco: Yeah, it’s very linked because the memory works. Our brain keeps remembering because this has helped us to solve puzzle problems. And we know it’s reinforced behavior. I know if I do this, I’m going to expect this because the brain constantly makes projections.
So if I know that through this donation, I will have this rush of dopamine, I will repeat. And I don’t need to think twice. If I know I’m gonna be harassed by another ask for money and that is not what I want. I’m just completely disjointed. That’s why it’s important to reinforce that pleasure moment through the different interactions. One of the things I said is the time of interaction after the donation, right? So we tested that if you do a personal call from the same person that recruited you in the canvassing within 24 hours, you’re going to get an enormous increase in donation retention.
And the more time passed, the less people will stay or will give again, so that’s how you can create a memory for them which is immediate after the dopamine, to reinforce that. You only remember people to people, you only remember.
Instead what we do is we send a newsletter. We send a ‘thank you’ letter, but it’s still not a person. So all your memories are going to influence. You’ve done something emotional and you receive a very formal acknowledgement of what you’ve done that has nothing to do with the pleasure moment. Instead of somebody that just says “I call you personally, take my time or to write to, or to call you because this is something important”.
That’s how you sediment the memory. It’s all about that creation and reinforcement. So the memory is the reinforcement mechanism that knows the next interaction should be as good as what we expect. And if it’s not, the brain will just say “That’s not a good memory. Just don’t do it. Don’t pick up the phone. Don’t answer because it’s actually not what you expect”.
Mallory: That thank you moment right after. Is that a peak moment?
Francesco: Yes, of course. If it’s done personally one-to-one by a human. Yes, it is. Exactly the pleasure that is not just occasional, but just say “Oh wow. I am part of something bigger”. You would be surprised when I invite everybody to just run some calls and see how many of them remember to be donors, people that have given for maybe 10 years, they forgot about it.
Memory is a reinforcement mechanism that only works if it’s a solution to a problem, or if it’s a pleasure to give us. We memorize things because we know “Okay, I do this because I know where I have to go. Or I know if I do this I will get pleasure. So that’s the memory element as a reinforcement to behavior and expectation for a reward. If you break that, it’s very difficult to get back on track.
Mallory: Okay. So you’re bringing up this really interesting thing. I signed up as in my business for this new CRM and I was getting a lot of emails from them about like, how is this going? A lot of the things that you talk about in the book, even surveys around different components, a lot of support doing a really great job. I had been in this new CRM for 30 days and I get an email that looks like a normal email from the CEO of the company. And it’s like a three sentence email, super warm, and it just says something like “Hey, you joined us 30 days ago, I just want to check in with you to see how everything’s going. It’s really important to us that our customers are satisfied with our product. And we’re always trying to improve. Let me know if there’s anything we can do to improve your experience”. Super simple, super warm.
It made me think “Oh my gosh, this just needs to be in everything that I do even in my own business”. But also I feel like sometimes in the non-profit sector, we get so afraid to build personal relationships because then we’re worried the donor’s going to be tied directly to us.
And it will be hard to transition the donor to someone else. I could not tell you that CEO’s name if my life depended on it, but I do very well remember the feeling and the company.
Francesco: Yes, exactly. The simple act of asking for feedback increases four or five times the retention lifetime value. So just to say “Mallory. Thanks for donating. How was your experience on our website? You find it easy? Engaging? Please let us know if there’s something we can do. That simple act makes an active donor feel valued. Now people say “Oh, but people don’t bother to respond”. Okay, but those that take the time, they feel rewarded. They feel that their point of view counts.
I donate personally to many courses and also as part of my profession to many others as a mystery shopper, I don’t even remember how many do exactly that thing, how many ask me how the experience was. Do you know any case that takes a CEO to write to you? Even in an automated message. Can you remember any? I remember many just asked me for a second gift.
I’m sure you notice very well the difference between commerce and us. And they don’t reach out as pure kindness, I can guarantee you, there is bottom line behind it because they know that the more you feel valued as a customer, the more you provide input, the more likely you are to buy more and be part of that.
Mallory: Yeah, and if there is a problem they’re going to help me resolve it. You talk about in your book a little bit about the negative peak, like when people have a negative experience with your organization, like some issue with their transaction and things like that.
That can be so frustrating and people, and I feel like some of what was signaled to me through that email is just that this company’s got my back and they are handling my credit card and they are handling these other things. And it’s just nice to know that there’s humans over there.
Francesco: That’s right. That’s absolutely right. Of all the organizations I research, none has a very clear refund policy. On Amazon -sorry to make names- one of the things that make you trust the company is if I changed my mind or if the product is not good, I just get it back and get my refund, no questions asked, right? This gives you trust, right? On the nonprofit side, if I made a mistake or changed my mind, there’s no policy.
This is the level of confidence and trust that we don’t create.
Habitat for Humanity has this approach, “If you think that we don’t use all the money or we’re not going to achieve our goals, we gonna refund your money”. They get the same response rate, the second with the money back guarantee gets double or three times the average gift. How many people ask for their money back? Zero. Why should you be afraid to just say if we don’t actually do what we ask you the money for we’re going to give you the money back? This will add so much credibility and humanity and understanding, and it makes you feel that somebody takes this seriously and nobody will ask for the money back anyway.
Mallory: It’s really interesting. I think it’s such a good point also around as we start to experience companies that do things and we start to build relationships with other entities that aren’t non-profits that have these standard operating procedures that do make us feel comfortable.
And then we go to the nonprofit sector and they don’t have any of those. There’s this gap we’ve gotten used to. I have a course called Power Partners formula, and I have a 60 day money back guarantee. People thought it was the craziest thing. And I was like “If somebody actually comes into my course and uses it and it doesn’t work for them, I of course want to give them their money back”.
Francesco: Exactly, you build trust in the relationship because you have nothing to hide.
Mallory: Yeah. So before we run out of time, I have to ask you this question. So I’m so curious, we’re seeing this rise in monthly giving programs, and I feel like everyone is talking about or launching different monthly giving programs, especially smaller midsize organizations who perhaps didn’t have a program like that previously. I’m curious, if a first time donor joins a monthly giving program, does that signal to you that the organization did a good job? Creating both a dopamine and serotonin like experience at once.
Francesco: It depends, Mallory, because in Europe it’s pretty much something now in the last 20 years, many organizations just go straight for the monthly giving. Monthly given has this level of belonging over the first step. You choose to give monthly because you want to be a member, right? The point that I see most of the time is that you may force people to sign up for a commitment and then don’t have a long-term commitment. So, one of the things I see in person and face to face is a higher level of attrition, because that’s the only option. The signup in the street.
I will not make any assumption that monthly giving is a different type of donor. How does this monthly donation get celebrated and sedimented? Are you going to just manage the end of that relationship? So if somebody just unsubscribes, what are you going to do? Let it go? Monthly giving is a very valid and efficient operation, if it’s done well. But there can’t just be one option for the organization. What does it mean for a donor to donate monthly? What is achieved on top? All this made me feel good every month.
There was this famous product that is still valid, that is ‘child sponsorship’. Why did it work? Because it’s one story of a child and every month you get an update on what’s going on. It makes sense to give monthly, right?
I would encourage not to make the monthly transaction, but to make a monthly celebration, monthly peaks to sediment that. You have to get monthly moments that make sense for the people to give them monthly. The worst thing I see is when organizations say “Give monthly because this makes it better for us to plan ahead”. How is this supposed to motivate a donor?
It’s supposed to achieve something for me, not for you to be more efficient. So again, if a donor goes on the monthly giving program, make sure that you have a journey and offer the emotional sedimented memories, celebrate peaks so that these become a real relationship, not another item or a credit card.
Mallory: Okay. Wow. I have so many more questions, but I’m going to hold my tongue and just tell everyone where they can find you, learn more about you, the best place to go and buy your books so that they can connect with you after this.
Francesco: They can find me on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Both books Hooked on a Feeling and Emotionraising are available on Amazon, that’s the fastest, best way to get them. However, Canadians especially can have a special discount if they buy the book directly from a Civil Society Press. For organizations, there can be a discount too if you want many books for the members of your team. I’m happy to discuss with all the team, having a day with them and getting more deep on it, so there are various options to explore.
Mallory: Thank you so much. I have been mailing your book all over the place, people in the last few months, and I’m just so grateful for you and the work that you’re doing and just the wealth of knowledge that you’re providing nonprofits to improve their practices and create better and more human connections with their communities. So thank you so much!
Francesco: Thank you, Mallory has been a pleasure and hopefully we’re going to get another chance later. I would love that. Thank you.