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Grieving and Giving

June 30, 2017 — 

When Sara Penner’s husband passed away seven years ago, her mother-in-law made a memorial gift in his name to the Assiniboine Park Zoo – a memorial Sara visits at least once a year. Now a PhD student at the Asper School of Business, she has channelled her experience with grieving – and her extensive professional experience in philanthropy – into research that explores what motivates people to make charitable gifts in memory of those they have lost.

“The death of someone we love can be one of the hardest and most traumatic events we can go through, and can create a whole array of emotions, from sadness and anger to guilt and nostalgia,” she says. “I want to know why, when people are grieving, are they motivated to make a charitable gift? Why would they permanently place their loved ones’ name on a memorial? I have a sense for what it has done for me, but is that the same or different for what it is doing for others?”

Current research on grieving suggests that when someone close to you passes away, you need to create a new relationship or bond with them. Symbols are one way to foster that bond. This is called the continuing bonds theory. A symbol such as a gravesite or a shrine helps the donor by providing “strategic memory protection,” which keeps the memory of the loved-one alive.

Building on the existing literature, Sara’s research will explore whether emotions explain this behaviour, and will seek to confirm that people use these symbols to create a continued bond with the deceased. She hopes to find out if permanent memorials are, in fact, related to strategic memory protection, and if the age of the deceased influences the motivation behind the donation. She will conduct her research through in-depth qualitative interviews, qualitative surveys, and experimental designs.

“I’ve worked with donors like these for many years,” she says. “I want to understand their behaviour in a way that helps not-for-profits work with donors more sensitively and effectively, while increasing giving.”

Sara has worked in the not-for-profit sector since 1999, including management roles in organizations such as the United Way of Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Humane Society, the Arthritis Society, and St. Boniface Hospital Foundation. Her PhD falls under the banner of consumer behaviour, an area related to marketing. “Instead of selling a product, philanthropy sells the opportunity to help others.”

The Asper School of Business has been the ideal home for her research, says Sara, because of the school’s receptiveness to training and research with impacts beyond the corporate world – such as the not-for-profit sector.

“I feel like I have a home at Asper. I have never before felt so supported, so cheered on to be successful by warm, welcoming and knowledgeable people.”

Sara has recently co-authored a paper published in the Journal of Business Research that explores how preventing negative outcomes motives donors more strongly than promoting positive outcomes for a cause.

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