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Understanding the Motivations of Major Donors, Part I: The Most Important Things to Know


Excerpt from the second edition of Over Goal! What You Must Know to Excel at Fundraising Today

Motivated major donors. We want them. We need them. We strive to keep them. And yet, we find ourselves too often frustrated because we don't have them, still need them, or, worse, we've lost them.

Much has been written about major donor motivation. Sweeping generalizations profile the most likely major donors and so we find, in our communities, that we're all turning to the same people because they fit the profile.

Lists for feasibility studies for capital campaigns contain the same names, year after year. In the back of performing arts programs, in annual reports and newsletters from social service organizations, and in the publications of independent schools and colleges, we see the same names. Over-solicited, these "most likely to be major donors" members of our communities become increasingly resistant as donor fatigue sets in.

So, what's the answer? If the profile of the major-rated "Everydonor" is so proven, yet so exhausted, where do we turn to find the new major donor—one who will be so sparked by the mission and impact of our organization that she will make (and renew) a significant investment?

And, as important, how do we create the conditions in which even experienced donors will be more motivated and excited about the opportunities we offer them to invest, through us, in our communities?

Two obviously emerging major donor groups are women, and the thirty- and forty-something men and women who have done well in technology or related industries. But the purpose of this article isn't to identify likely groups; it is to pinpoint the motivations of major donors that cross group lines. Our purpose here is to provide some new ideas to help all organizations venture off the well-worn paths and find new doors to open.

Here, then, are the most important things to know about the motivations of major donors.

The Old Generalizations about Motivation Need to Be Rethought

While recognition, peer pressure, guilt, the quest for immortality, and other traditional motivations may still be present, it's important to realize that a younger generation of donors and the rising role of women in philanthropy have added some new motivations that can prove beneficial to organizations who understand them.

Thirty-somethings and forty-somethings who are very successful have been, for the most part, significant creators of the ideas, products, and services that have made them wealthy. They're used to being involved in the creation, implementation, and evaluation of projects: they respond to outcomes. They want to be involved.

In some communities, the scions of the wealthy families have departed from their philanthropic traditions and are directing their money towards programs with high social impact rather than those with high social recognition.

It is the same with many emerging women philanthropists. All the recent studies about women's philanthropy distinguish it from men's philanthropy with one common conclusion: women get involved first and then give. They are less apt to respond to peer pressure, more apt to follow their own hearts.

The younger generation of donors shares some of that same profile, and is also less apt to give for recognition only. In fact, some shy away from recognition entirely.

Understanding these needs in donors may also be another way to energize tired donors.

Three Basic Motivations Are Connection, Concern, Capacity

We focus on capacity, when we should concentrate on connection (first) and concern about (or interest in) the mission the organization serves.

Too often, organizations think they can identify their future major donors by combing Forbes (for the 400), Fortune (for the 500), or their own local organizations for their lists of high-end donors.

Those lists are an aid only if they bear names of people who have a connection with your organization or who are known to be concerned about your mission.

Spend your time looking first for the connection or the concern. If someone is concerned (preferably passionate) about the need you're meeting in the community, then you can bring her closer by building the relationship and creating the connection.

If the relationship already exists between the prospective donor and your organization or someone involved with your organization, but the concern or interest is unknown or weak, you can inform and involve him around the mission.

If the capacity to give is large, and the connection and concern are solid, it is a winning combination. Without the connection and the concern, capacity alone will not a major donor make!

And, make sure you haven't relegated your existing major donors into "giving categories" instead of into categories that identify what they think about and what they care about.

Motivation Is an Internal Issue—What Organizations Provide Is the Right External Environment for That Motivation to Flourish

One spin on motivation theory is that you cannot motivate people: they are already motivated, and your job is to find out what motivates them and construct the right environment in which their motivation will flourish. With newer philanthropists, this is especially true.

The motivation comes from within. Something happens when you see a donor connect with the values, mission, and vision of your organization. Sometimes it's as though there's an audible "click." Suddenly, the desires of the organization and the desires of the prospective donor are wedded.

Getting the donor to that point requires patience and a great deal of listening. Hear what the prospect is asking and saying. Watch what peaks her interest and when her interest flags. Observe to whom she gravitates at social and educational gatherings. Reflect on the questions she asks.

All of these factors construct the picture of the person's motivation and help the organization respond with integrity and good intent to help the current or new donor achieve fulfillment and the organization to realize its goals.

Motivation Grows Out of Values

This is indisputable. Part of the "click" mentioned above is the sound of values matching. The prospect realizes that, for example, this is the educational philosophy that will produce future citizens of which the community will be proud, or this is the approach to programs for developmentally disabled adults that ensures the most dignity, or this is the dance company that most closely reflects the diversity the donor seeks in the arts and in the community.

Values are best conveyed in programs and actions. Words alone aren't persuasive. A major donor will be motivated when she sees her values manifested.

Keeping existing major donors connected with the values also maintains motivation.

And involving current major donors with the cultivation of prospective major donors gives them opportunities to examine and convey shared values.

Motivation Is Ignited by the Passion That Comes from Involvement and Belief in the Mission

The age of the passive philanthropist is ending. As the face of philanthropy changes, so does its quest. An interest in outcomes is replacing a need for rewards. While recognition is still important, the way in which it is provided is changing. It is more mission-connected.

Those who benefit, those who are served, those who are grateful for the programs and services: these are the individuals with whom thoughtful major philanthropists want to be connected. It is they who provide the passion that motivates continued giving. Passion is essential, and passion is fueled by involvement. It begins with the board, many of whom may be major donors.

Each board meeting needs a "mission moment" in which a client, patron, or person connected to a recipient shares his observations and appreciation for the organization. Board members need to be treated like major donors (whether or not they give a "major" gift), and they should be asked for their annual or capital investment personally. Only then will they know how to involve and ask others.

Next month: "Understanding the Motivations of Major Donors, Part II: Know Thy Donors"

Kay Sprinkel Grace
© 2006. Excerpted from the second edition of Over Goal! What You Must Know to Excel at Fundraising Today. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Kay Sprinkel Grace is the author of Over Goal! What You Must Know to Excel at Fundraising Today, from which this article is excerpted. Her other books include The Ultimate Board Member's Book  and Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too).
Topics: Fundraising
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