The Fundraising Executive

Primary Donor Motivation: The Subtle Difference Between “Giving With” and “Giving Because”

By Eddie Thompson | September 28, 2011 | Donor Communications

There are scores of giving methods, each one addressing a particular need of the organization and/or the donor — gifts to annual funds, capital campaigns, program initiatives; gifts from income, assets, or advised funds; gifts of cash, property, or time. There are a lot of combinations. Just when I think I’ve seen every type of gift to every kind of need, something new comes along.  A few years back I visited with a donor who wanted to use a prize horse’s reproductive assets to fund a charitable remainder trust.

However, with regard to why people give, there are three basic types — habitual, emotional, and strategic donors. People generally stick to their motivational giving type. Strategic donors, for example, almost always make giving decisions based on some strategic significance. That does not mean that strategic donors don’t have giving habits or that they are devoid of emotion. Neither does it mean the emotional donors have no strategy or regularity in their giving.

It does mean this: that donors are driven to give by a primary motivation and donation decisions almost always follow those same inclinations. A strategic donor may give with emotion and with some regularity (habitually), but they give primarily because of their strategic approach to life. Their focus is ROI (return on investment). Others may give with regularly or make a gift with strategic significance but they give primarily because of the emotional response to an experience, appeal, or cause. Still habitual donors give with precise regularity because they have traditionally given out of habit — same amount and the same time each year. Traditional givers’ primary motivation is consistency, at times even when the passion or strategy of the original gift has eroded.

Donors who have been giving for years follow a well-worn mental path to their giving decisions.

It is essential that I understand the difference between the with and the because in their giving decisions. 

Over the years I have learned that we must not confuse methods of giving with the motivation of giving. If I am going to connect with a donor in a way that produces the maximum potential gift, I have to understand their primary giving motivation. In other words, it is essential that I understand the difference between the with and the because in their giving decisions. That is not easy to do because “giving with emotion because of strategy” and “giving with strategy because of emotion” look very much alike. Those two scenarios are, however, often very different. And the most effective appeals to those two types of donors are also different.

None of us will ever figure out a donor’s motivations by sorting through the giving records in the donor database. Neither will we get that information from a survey. That is particularly true with strategic donors who tend to hold their cards close to the chest. In other words, they will provide much less information to you in a casual conversation. Each step they make is calculated. They make small gifts in order to see if their gifts are used wisely, as measured against their values and giving priorities. They invest carefully in each aspect of life, and they expect nonprofits to do the same with their gifts.

I remember a donor I would meet each year for breakfast. He would always ask me the same question. He wanted to know how we had used his previous year’s gift. Each year we would go through the same ritual. Each year I got a very small gift from him.

As time rolled around, we met again for my annual “flogging.” Same restaurant, same breakfast, same questions, only this time no check. He asked if I could come to his office “after business hours” to pick up something.

Seeing his office for the first time seemed to explain the small annual gifts. He had an old grey metal desk and a chair with armrests that someone had repaired with duct tape.

Instead of the check I had been expecting, he handed me an old shoebox. I automatically said, Thank you” without inspecting the contents. The box full of stock certificates turned out to represent a seven-figure gift. He commented on his unexpected gift,

“I’ve been meeting with a number of nonprofits for years to see how they used my gifts. And you are the only person who took the time to help me understand whether or not my small gifts had been used wisely.”

He went on to explain that each year-end gift was a test of how we used his hard-earned dollars. His eyes teared as he told about his parents and the depression. Since this large gift was being given to honor them, it had to be given to an organization that would use it wisely.

What the computer cannot tell you is the subtle difference between how and why people give.

His donor record showed he was a habitual donor. His eyes reflected his emotion. It was his questions year after year that revealed him to be a strategic donor.

Computerized databases are helpful in many ways, but in some cases they hurt the organization. There is a tendency to sort names by amount, frequency, and giving habits. What the computer cannot tell you is the subtle difference between how and why people give. The only way to identify strategic donors is to visit with them and get to know them on a personal level. Visiting donors and getting to know them one by one is the foundation of every successful fundraising executive.

— Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.