The Fundraising Executive

MOTIVATIONS AND EMOTIONS: Evaluating the Strength of Your Donor Relationships

By Eddie Thompson | August 24, 2023 | Development Management

A donor’s primary giving motivation can reveal the depth and strength of their relationship with the institution. In thousands of conversations about charitable estate planning, long-term values, and inheritance priorities, I’ve learned a few things about WHY people become donors, volunteers, and/or advocates for the organizations I’ve represented. I ask a lot of questions, pay attention to body language, and listen very closely to their answers. There are at least three distinctive donor motivations that define their relationship with your organization.

1) Those who are FOR WHAT YOU ARE FOR;

2) Those who are AGAINST WHAT YOU ARE AGAINST; and

3) Those who are FOR YOU and WITH YOU.

Once you understand what motivates a donor’s support of your institution, you are better equipped to strengthen those relationships. Through my time in charitable estate planning, I have seen plenty of cases that illustrate each type of donor motivations and how they affected giving strategies.

1) Donors who are FOR WHAT YOU ARE FOR and give generously to support that vision. A donor’s dedication to your cause does not accurately measure the depth or longevity of their relationship with the organization, the president, or you. Occasionally, leaders are shocked by an unexpected gift from an estate. It happens all the time with the organizations we serve. As an estate planning consultant, I am aware of numerous testamentary gifts of which the client organization is unaware. Thompson & Associates only informs the organization of future estate gifts at the donor’s request. At the same time, other institutions can be profoundly disappointed when they were not among the beneficiaries of their most affluent donors.

Only 45% of Americans with household incomes over $75,000 have a will, with less than 3% including a charitable gift.

A 2018 Gallup Poll revealed that only 45% of Americans with household incomes over $75,000 have a will, and among the major donors with whom I’ve consulted since 1983, less than 3% include a charitable gift. Those we work with are already donors to our clients’ organizations, so it’s easy to see why nonprofit leaders are so often surprised by the inclusion or the absence of estate gifts from their long-term donors.

PERSONAL ILLUSTRATION: Ten years ago, I served as a consultant to a private college in the Midwest. The Chairman of the Board was an incredibly successful businesswoman. A generous, wealthy, and passionate advocate for the university, she was the prototype of a habitual giver, having made contributions every year she had served on the Board. She had been a member of the university booster club, articles had been written about her affiliation with the university, and her office displayed awards for her outstanding service to the institution.

When she passed away, my client was confident that the institution would receive a very nice gift from her estate. Two weeks later, her attorney called to say there were six charities due to receive gifts from her estate and that their institution was NOT among them.

I am sure the president was probably shocked to hear they had not been included among the fortunate six after she had faithfully served many years as Chairman of the Board.

This was an example of a major donor who was “for what the institution was for,” but her connection was not based on deep personal relationships with the university leadership, the faculty, or a fundraising representative.

2) Donors who are AGAINST WHAT YOU ARE AGAINST give just as generously and often even more passionately. It’s exciting to have these donors onboard. They typically bring with them a lot of ideas, energy, and enthusiasm, but this support can also be more volatile and dependent on certain expectations or demands. Often the source of their discontent is that they question whether or not the organization’s passion is equal to their own—usually measured by program effectiveness or the institutional tooth-to-tail ratio (i.e. the ratio of administration and fundraising to program). 1

PERSONAL ILLUSTRATION: For many years, I have hosted an annual dinner with estate planning clients who made an outright or planned gift of over $1,000,000. The dinner is intentionally free of nonprofit representatives in order to foster a space for donors to discuss their thoughts and concerns with each other and me.

At one of these dinners several years ago, a major donor made a comment that was hard to forget.

“I am going to build a women’s hospital,” he declared, “that is if I can ever get a nonprofit to pay attention to the needs of women.”

He went on to state his frustration and his determination with the group of twenty-three guests. This well-endowed gentleman was determined to move forward with or without the involvement of the hospital board on which he currently sat. He was very clear about his primary motivation. His first wife had died of breast cancer and his second wife was fighting for her life with the same disease.

“I am tired of fighting with them and listening to their excuses,” he continued.  “I’m going to find a partner who wants to get this done.” 2

This donor’s primary commitment was combatting cancer, not supporting the specific hospital for which he served on the board. His compelling passion, as well as that of the other donors present at the dinner, taught me many valuable lessons, including these three insights:

INSIGHT #1: Strategic philanthropists get bored and impatient with partners who dont share their vision and beliefs. Most nonprofit leaders face daily limitations on many fronts. But constantly focusing on the limitations within an organization can turn into a scarcity mentality. At the same time, many philanthropists perceive an abundance of resources in terms of unlimited possibilities. Often, there is a wide gap between the two.

INSIGHT #2:  Strategic philanthropists want more than just anecdotal evidence of meeting an individual’s needs. While they can be moved by an individual’s impact story, their main focus is the bigger picture. For instance, a development director meets a major donor and relays a tear-jerking story about how a child was supported, rescued, or served. The donor is of course very happy to hear about the benefit to that child. Consequently, the development director leaves thinking the meeting went marvelously. The donor, on the other hand, leaves the meeting wondering, What about the 500 other kids in that same neighborhood? And what about the thousands of kids in similar situations throughout the city? The development director would have been more successful using the story of the child as an introduction to the bigger mission and communal impact of the organization. In my meeting of 23 major donors, the question under consideration was: What about the thousands of women needing specialized treatment for breast or ovarian cancer?

INSIGHT #3: Major donors who are primarily AGAINST WHAT YOU ARE AGAINST have a narrow perspective of the organizational mission. They are often far more cause-oriented than organization-oriented. When they sense that inward-oriented focus among organizational executives, they become impatient. The gentleman wanting to build a women’s hospital was determined to bring about change at any cost. Donors who are against what the organization is against in the extreme are less likely to respond to funding appeals that include or focus entirely on the institution’s long-term sustainability—infrastructure upgrades or salary increases to maintain key talent. While a medical center is in it for the long haul, the immediate need was so important to this donor that his support did not reside with the hospital’s long-term future.

Here is the all-important point: The gentleman consumed with his desire for the women’s hospital was the prototypical example of a generous donor who was simply “against what the organization was against.” This most generous donor hated cancer far more than he liked the hospital and its board.

3) Donors who are FOR YOU and WITH YOU.

I’m aware that most donors are both for one thing and simultaneously against the opposite. In the two examples above, the extremes only became evident after many years, and in the case of the woman who served as the Board Chairman, only after the reading of her will. As these cases illustrate, the frequency or the amount of giving is simply not an accurate measure of the depth of a donor’s relationship or the long-term commitment to your organization.

The frequency or the amount of giving is simply not an accurate measure of the depth of a donor’s relationship or the long-term commitment to your organization.

That begs the question: Can donors who are merely for what you are for or against what you are against be turned into donors who are intrinsically FOR YOU and FOR YOUR ORGANIZATION? The answer is: you’ll never really know unless you intentionally build relationships with your major donors.

PERSONAL ILLUSTRATION: Mrs. Donna Baker was a modest woman in her late 70s.  She worked as a registrar for a local college, but she gave small gifts to a dozen colleges, creating scholarships for students in-need. On my first visit with her as a development director, she was kind but not too talkative. I thanked her for her gift and quickly moved on.

Mrs. Baker lived almost exactly halfway from my office to my home. One day, I saw her out in her front yard. She was obviously perplexed, standing there with hands on her hips frowning at the lawnmower. It was not cooperating. I pulled over and eventually got the mower started. After a quick thank you, I watched this little elderly lady begin attacking the lawn with vengeance.

After the lawnmower experience, our visits became a regular part of my drive home. I discovered that she was a fascinating lady. Once I asked her why she gave to other colleges rather than to the one for which she worked. She said, “I am just poking around with these scholarships.” I was unsure what she meant by “poking around” with her giving, but it seemed that was all she had to say about that. So, I moved on to another topic.

Eventually, we developed a great friendship. I stopped by to see her more and more each year as she continued to age. When she reached her 85th birthday, she made a gift to celebrate this milestone, a substantial gift to our institution. Several years later, she shifted all her annual gifts to us.

A year or so before she died, we sat on her back porch just talking about life and things that mattered most to us. She said, “Thank you for sharing so many wonderful stories about your students. I love your mission, and I appreciate our friendship.”

We rarely talked about money, but Mrs. Donna Baker became a friend who was not merely for what we were for nor against what we were against. She became a friend who was FOR ME and FOR the institution I represented.

In addition to her annual giving, when she passed, we received a generous gift from Mrs. Baker’s estate.

IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: Every donor and every donation needs to be acknowledged and appreciated, regardless of the size and motivation. My experience has been that even the most prickly and awkward donor interactions can be developed and turned into donors who are not merely for what you are for nor against what you are against but intrinsically FOR YOU and FOR YOUR ORGANIZATION. A development director’s objective is not just developing funding sources; it’s developing relationships.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D., FCEP
Founder and CEO
Thompson & Associates—Eddie Thompson

copyright 2023, R. Edward Thompson