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, By Kay Sprinkel Grace, 2006

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.

Part II: Know Thy Donors

Research May Give Clues about Motivation, but the Only Truly Reliable Resource Is the Donor

Get to know your major prospects and donors. More importantly, get to know as many of your donors -- major or not -- as you can. See them all as having potential to give a large gift at some time or to connect you with those who can. If you're fortunate enough to have research capability at your organization, use it as a baseline.

Validate it through conversation and involvement. Throw out the old paradigms and be open to those on whom no research exists. Inexperienced donors need to feel supported by an organization that understands their need for information, involvement, and, in many cases, time.

The Goal of Good Stewardship Is to Keep the Donor Motivated

Stewardship, which is the ongoing relationship with a donor based on mutual respect for both the source and impact of the gift, is perhaps the most important function in the development process. It is critical to maintaining major donor motivation.

So many institutions have lost major donors through their failure to maintain a values- and mission-based relationship with their donors. They wine, dine, and solicit prospects and then, once the gift is secured, place the new donor into the donor file and close it up.

For them, the transaction is over. But for the donor, the relationship is just beginning. Honoring the donor, and his motivation, is the key to effective stewardship. Motivation is stimulated by knowing that the shared values of the donor and the institution are being advanced. Stewardship is the vehicle for conveying that information.

Corporate and Foundation Motivation Is Different from Individual Motivation, but Remember That Corporations and Foundations Are Run by Individuals

Although corporations and foundations may be motivated by more complex factors in their giving (perception as corporate citizens, investing in a local or national agenda), remember they are run by individuals.

When a corporation or foundation becomes a major donor, chances are it's because your organization matches the guidelines or fulfills their community commitment to a particular population, service, need, or ideal.

Most often, the process for obtaining a gift is relatively impersonal, requiring a certain level of objective application within funding guidelines. However, during the gift-seeking process and afterwards, as stewardship is implemented, the motivations of decision-making individuals should be watched and responded to. Chances are, you'll end up with a continuing and deeper relationship.
Motivated Donors Must Be Linked with Motivated Volunteers

The increasing trend in universities, hospitals, and other larger organizations to use staff-only soliciting is unfortunate. The presence of a volunteer, motivated by the values and mission of the organization and giving of his time to meet with a potential donor, cannot be over-valued. The peer ask continues to be the most effective, and the most motivating, in major gifts programs.

This doesn't in anyway undermine the training, effectiveness, or knowledge of development staff: it's merely a plea for the continued involvement of motivated volunteers -- often with staff -- in the cultivation and solicitation of major gifts.

Ultimately, the Most Motivated Major Donors Will Self-solicit

This concept, first introduced to the writer many years ago by a motivated and effective volunteer at Stanford University, has repeatedly proven true.

When the environment is established in which a prospective donor's motivations can flourish, and when the prospect is connected with volunteers who themselves are motivated and share the prospect's values, the prospect begins to self-solicit.

Presented with an array of opportunities to act on his values, the prospect begins an internal dialogue in which the gift is considered and "solicited."

While few donors will actually step forward without being asked, the self-solicit ensures that -- when the prospect is asked -- the ensuing transaction will be characterized by excitement, energy, and commitment.

It is the same with those who are already committed as major donors. They will renew and increase their gifts if a motivating environment surrounds them. The challenge to those who ask is to stay so connected to the prospect or donor that the right time to ask becomes obvious.

The motivation accelerates, the involvement increases, and the desire to invest becomes clear. Seize the moment: it will reap rewards for the donor, and for the organization.

Ultimately, major donor motivation is as varied as the donors themselves. Learn to look for the unique aspects of each current and potential donor: his values, interests, connections, and what he cares about. While some aspects of the traditional profiles still hold true, there's so much more to consider.

A broader view of motivation will bring a broader base of major donors, and among them will be the "new philanthropists": those who are mercifully free of donor fatigue.

And you just might find a cure for donor fatigue among the major donors that everyone seeks. They're all looking increasingly for continued involvement, values-based feedback, and opportunities to make a difference.

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).