“We give from the heart—our most powerful engine for action. And we give because it feels good,” posits Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen in Giving 2.0. In her recent book aimed at philanthropists, she cites a study from the National Institute of Health that found when subjects were encouraged to think about giving, the same parts of the brain associated with pleasurable activities like eating or sex lit up (Nicholas Dristof, “Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving”, New York Times, January 16, 2010).

On the up side, this explains the utterly remarkable generosity I’ve seen over the course of 20 years working with non-profits. I’ve seen it from donors, of course—some of whom choose to live simply and give substantial amounts to worthy causes. It is almost part of their DNA. “You never meet a grumpy generous person,” was often quoted by clients at a charitable foundation.

I’ve also seen this at the opposite end of the spectrum, most notably in disasters. People often ask how I could go into relief situations, thinking it must be so depressing. Quite the opposite was true for me. Dire circumstances can bring out the very best in humanity. I was often astonished by people who had recently lost almost everything and yet had so much to give to the people around them and to me. There was often a palpable sense of joy and hope in the midst of tremendous loss.

On the down side, because it feels good, people are prone to give impulsively and Arrillaga-Andreessen counsels against that. “Give to what interests or excites you most and make it a long-term affair, rather than a philanthropic one-night stand.”

For organizations looking for charitable dollars, this means we have to keep up our side of the relationship. Fundraising can tug at the heart strings, but it has to be surrounded by the substance of impact and positive change.

This requires a continuous flow of information—story and statistics, emotion and evidence, losses and lessons learned. The best donors are being taught to expect nothing less. Are we ready for the challenge?