Why Donors Give: The Universal Truth

Here are a few cliches about why donors give:

  • “Donors don’t give to meet your institution’s needs, they give to meet their own needs.”
  • “Donors don’t give because you have needs, they give because you meet needs.”
  • “Donors don’t give to institutions, they give through institutions.”
  • “People give to people.”

These cliches have become cliches because they are quick, nice-sounding statements that are authenticated by our experiences.  Each contains a certain amount of truth.  They do, in fact, describe why some donors choose to support a particular institution or initiative.  However, the fact that the cliches also contradict one another suggests that none of them are universal truths.

When you pause on each of these sayings, though, one universal truth does emerge.  Whether a donor gives because they are meeting their own needs, gives because your institution is meeting needs, is giving through your institution, or, is giving to a person or people, the universal truth is that you must know them well to receive their gift.  Specifically, you must know:

  • their needs;
  • what needs you meet that are attractive to them;
  • what end result makes them want to give through you, or;
  • which people they trust enough to give to.

Cliches are helpful – they are like maps that quickly present pictures of the actual terrain.  But they aren’t the terrain, they simply represent the terrain.  The terrain, of course, is much more nuanced and, in some instances, doesn’t match up very well with what we believe the map shows.

When we do the work to get to know our donors, we move from the maps of the cliches to the truth of the terrain.   Sure, understand the maps, but understand they don’t equal the full and complete truth.  Only your donors can provide that.


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