Why Do Other Donors Give?

Ask a Board member, an Advisory Council member, or other engaged major donor why he gives to your institution.   Almost universally, you will hear how he believes in the mission of the institution.  Or, how the institution made an impact on his life or on the life of someone dear to him.  Or, how he believes in the concept of giving back.  Or, how he was touched by a story of an individual, family, or community positively impacted by the work of your institution.

Now, ask the same person how you can best encourage others to make significant gifts and you are likely to hear a very different perspective.  Specifically, you may hear something similar to the following:

  • “People give to institutions that can communicate clear outcomes,” or,
  • “People give to institutions that are efficient and can prove that they get results,” or,
  • “People give to specific projects,” or,
  • “People give to name something,” and, of course,
  • “People will not give to the annual fund.”

When donors reflect on their own giving, they will regularly frame their motivations in terms of personal meaning, mission, and relationships.  The impetus for giving is pure, more altruistic, and more emotional.

However, when donors surmise on the giving motivations of others, they regularly frame their responses in more transactional terms.  The giving motivations of others are identified as more self-interested, more business-like, and more rational.

This should not be surprising, of course.  Social scientists have told us for years that, in a variety of settings, we attribute the most socially-attractive motivators to explain our behavior and less socially-favorable motivators to explain the behaviors of others.  For instance, I simply didn’t see the woman whom I cut off driving down the road.  But the guy who cut me off moments later is arrogant, self-absorbed (probably texting!), and, should have his driver’s license revoked.

People make significant gifts because their beliefs, experiences, and personal relationships trigger them to do so.  They give meaningfully because they are moved emotionally and personally to be generous.  During hundreds of interviews with major donors, I have never had one say, “I researched a bunch of institutions and made the decision to make a significant gift to this one because they were the most efficient – their cost-to-raise a dollar was the lowest.”

You should be far less interested in what your major donors think about the giving motivations of others.  Instead, find out why they give themselves.  Dig in to their motivations.  Then, implement the strategies that encourage the types of personal relationships and experiences that motivate their generosity.


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