Why do donors make gifts? What motivates a donor to give?
It’s not because your materials are the most eye-catching or compelling. It’s not because your institution has the most needs. It’s not because you serve the most disadvantaged populations. It’s not even because you have the most urgent and life-impacting case for support. If any of these were true, your local food pantry would be raising huge amounts of money and an institution like Stanford University wouldn’t have recently announced that they were the first higher education institution to raise $1 billion in a single year.
No, donors give, fundamentally, to meet their own needs. To fulfill their own desires. To align with their own interests. Donors, in short, are like most all humans. They are selfish.
But don’t take this to mean that selfishness is a negative concept. Selfishness can be evidenced as a social good. Research on giving is clearly showing us that humans are hard-wired to care for and support each other. We gain things when we give to each other. Our brains reward us when we give in much the same ways that our brains reward us when we experience other self-sustaining acts – such as enjoying food or even having sex! (I’m waiting for the campaign tagline that reads: “Give to us. . . It’ll be just as good as sex”)
Giving, or being altruistic in general, are, in fact, selfish acts.
Some donors give because they want to make a difference. Others give because they want to be viewed as generous (by the world and/or by themselves!). Others give because it’s a family hallmark. Some give because of their religious beliefs encourage generosity. Still others give because they quietly like the good feeling they receive. And yes, some give because they want a specific, public, and tangible, return on their transaction with your institution. But none of these donors are more or less selfish than the others. They are simply meeting different individual needs and agendas.
In attempting to better understand our donors and prospects, we often ask ourselves the sterile question: “What motivates this donor to give?” Perhaps a more pointed and penetrating question we should ask ourselves is, “What does this donor crave?” When we answer this question, we will get closer to fully appreciating what selfish drive animates their philanthropy.