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1 of 40 Fundraising Questions That Demands an Answer

How old is the typical U.S. donor?

[  ] 35 years of age
[  ] 50 years of age
[  ] 75 years of age

Hold on; don’t be so sure you know the answer.

As I reveal in my new book, If You’d Only Known, You Would Have Raised So Much More, there are 40 questions just like this that require answers if you hope to succeed in fundraising.

"A young donor in the U.S. is sixty," expert Jeff Brooks noted in 2013.

He shared the pie chart below. It breaks down giving in the U.S. by age. How good is the data, you ask? It doesn't get any better: it comes from Target Analytics Group, a Blackbaud company. In 2019, Blackbaud managed the donor records for more than 28,000 charities in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. It holds and deeply analyzes oceans of information about giving.

Pie chart of donor ages: under 35 (4%), 35-44 (11%), 45-54 (17%), 55-64 (22%), 65+ (46%)

Is it different for your organization? "It comes out this way no matter who does the research," Jeff told me. "I've seen it many times through the years." 

Donors aged 65 and older comprise (by far) the largest slice of the American charity pie. Those under age 35 make up  the smallest slice of the same pie. 

What's typical? I know an animal rescue charity that acquired a new annual donor at age 55. She sent in her last donation at age 101, just before she died. The only thing unusual about that? Most of your donors won't stick around for 46 years. 

OK, but that's puppies and kittens. What about other kinds of charities? Are their donors also older? 

For more than a decade, I've written direct mail appeals for a community hospital system in southern California. Tens of thousands of grateful ex-patients (i.e., the ones not suing) have chosen to become donors. 

What's their average age? Not 74. Nor 76. Exactly 75 years old. Accurate? We know to the day when EX-patients-who-then-become-donors were born: the information is in their medical records. 

So, again, OK: puppies, kittens; hospitals curing people. What about an organization without these advantages: what's the "age profile" there? 

In 2017, one of America's top 10 brand-name charities, a group serving the homeless and addicted, analyzed its vast donor database by age. Its largest group of "active" (i.e., repeat) donors was 87 years old on average. Its largest group of first-time (i.e., new) donors was age 70 on average. 

Even in Australia, a philanthropic market that vigorously courts younger donors, older donors end up ruling the roost. Sean Triner, co-founder of Pareto, that country's largest direct mail and phone fundraising agency, ran the numbers. He simply concluded: "Older donors are better." 

Why? They tend to stick longer and hence give more in total. 

When and why people start giving 

Are younger Americans less generous? Not at all. But they lack one essential: money to give away.           

Young adults are building lives. They're buying stuff. They're forming and furnishing households. They are as caring and concerned and compassionate as anyone else. But unless they were born with the proverbial silver spoon, they probably don't have all that much disposable income to throw around (especially if they choose to have children, an expensive proposition in America).           

And then things change.           

"At age 55," Jeff Brooks observed, "people start to become reliably charitable. They're starting to have some extra money." There is some surplus in their wallets: the kids are launched, the house is almost paid for. "Then households begin giving to charity," said Jeff. "And their giving ramps up until age 65, where it levels off. They'll continue giving until something intervenes." They get ill. They grow destitute. They die.           

It's tempting to romanticize the act of giving. We admire generosity. It's a positive trait, the sign of a "good" person. But circumstances have to be right. People give to charity because they have disposable income ... and because something a charity said caught their eye and moved them.           

Did I give your nonprofit $30? That's because I think I can give away $30 at this particular time ... without changing my lifestyle one bit. I sacrificed nothing (maybe a couple of lattes). Many gifts to charity are impulse purchases, the same purchases that fill your closets and drawers.           

Who are donors, really? Serial entrepreneur Seth Godin offered this sobering insight: target markets (such as prospective donors) are often "lazy people in a hurry." Keep your expectations in check.           

Are major gifts different? What if someone gave you $30 million instead of $30?           

To the charity, the gift is massive, maybe transformational. Yet it probably didn't alter the donor's lifestyle in the least. Still have the summer place on Martha's Vineyard. Still have the plastic flamingos on the lawn (annoying the neighbors). Still have the gardener and pool crew to keep the place looking spiffy. Still have the top-notch financial advisors growing my fortune every year without fail.           

A $30 million gift won't necessarily be an impulse gift ... but it's unlikely to be a sacrifice, either. 

When you say "younger" donors, what do you mean exactly? 

"The younger [youngest] groups will NOT stay with you in good numbers," Jeff Brooks noted, "even if you can find them.           

"But the 'almost old' are promising. They give higher average gifts than 65-plus, and once they're aboard, they can stay with you for many years. This is the group that can turn around your fortunes and drive you to a brighter future."           

The next big "giving generation" will be baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. In 2018, the oldest were 72, and the youngest were 54. You won't see the last of them until 2064 or so. It's a rich river to fish in. 

Tom AhernTom Ahern is author of If Only You’d Known, You Would Have Raised So Much More, from which this article is excerpted. Ahern’s other books include What Your Donors Want, and Why, Making Money with Donor Newsletters, Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes, and How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money.

Topics: Donors Donor Research