From “Why?” to “What?”

“Why?” isn’t the thing.  It’s not the building project.  Nor the endowment fund.  It’s not the new program.  Nor whatever the gifts might support.  “Why?” is what will happen once you successfully build that building, or grow that endowed fund, or start that new program.  “Why?” is how the money supports your mission and helps you fulfill your vision.  “Why?” is about how you will serve more and better.  “Why?” is about saving and/or transforming lives.

On the front end of the gift giving process, addressing “why?” in a compelling and clear way is critical.  Research suggests that givers are much more likely to be generous when they understand clearly “the why” and when it aligns with their values and beliefs.  If you are building a case for support, addressing, “why your gift is needed” early and with clarity matters.  Simply asking for a gift for the new building, program, or initiative, is not nearly enough – you will be leaving out the most captivating part of your request!  Passionately appealing to people’s values and beliefs encourages their most generous response.

However, after a gift has been made, communicating the “what?” of the gift becomes imperative.  “What?” describes the specific advances the gift has made possible in support of the mission or to fulfill the vision.  “What?” is the new, flexible space that will allow you to teach better.  “What?” is research that the newly-endowed professor just completed which signals a new pathway for sustainable energy.  “What?” is the new program that will link professional training with the classical liberal arts.

However rational we might wish ourselves to be with important decisions, researchers tell us that emotions still play an integral role in all decision-making.  In fact, recent work suggests that in situations where decisions are made in the best interests of others (as opposed to “self-interest”), moral sentiments, or emotions, serve to help decision-makers commit to others rather than being drawn back toward pure self-interest.  In other words, on the front end of the gift giving cycle, answering “why?” is a key trigger for generosity.

But after the “why?” has been answered and the gift commitment has been made, it is wise to begin focusing on addressing the “what?”  Humans might make charitable gift decisions based on the “why?” but they rationalize the shrewdness of their charitable investment with concreteness and logic.



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