Grand Unified Theory of Donor Desire

There’s been another round of intense dialogue in the philanthropy blogosphere regarding what motivates donors to give and how they give.

Research by a UK firm, YouGov, revealed that few donors found charity rating services useful.  Sean Stannard-Stockton at Tactical Philanthropy kicked off some U.S.-based responses.  Among others, Nathanial Whittemore at, Jacob Harold at the Hewlett Foundation, Tris Lumley at New Philanthropy Capital, and then Sean again discussed three essential points:

  • People act based on emotion first, then logic
  • Donors don’t want to be told to which organizations or sectors to give, but do want help defining and implementing their personal philanthropic goals
  • Advocates for “effective philanthropy,” charity ratings, nonprofit assessment reports, and other giving based on logic have to be more creative and focused to engage donors in the use of those services.

Those authors and others also pointed to a recent study by Hope Consulting, Money for Good, that examines the preferences, behaviors, and information demands of donors with household incomes over $80,000.  It breaks donors into six behaviors, with only 16% driven by “high-impact philanthropy” but 59% of the donors willing to give more or reallocate giving based on nonprofits improving certain behaviors and/or information.  The full Money for Good report is a must-read for nonprofits, foundations, fundraisers and gift planners, and other advisors to donors – download and discuss!

In the midst of all of that came the annual bible of charitable giving data, Giving USA and its new free executive summary (another must-read).  Two data points in Giving USA struck me as I was reading through the blogs and report above:

1)      Giving by individuals only dropped 2.4% in the past two years, despite lousy markets, personal income, and employment numbers.  To me, this confirms donors’ consistent will and intent to give whether despite the lack of widely-spread good information or analyses about nonprofits or their measurable impact.

2)      Charitable remains at around 2% of GDP, and that number hasn’t changed for 40 years.  I believe this means that all of us who care about charitable giving – and its positive impact on donors and recipients – have clearly not yet learned how to unleash large-scale, transformative generosity.

What to make of all of this information and opinion?  I think it all re-affirms what I learned from the best philanthropic advisors:  if you want to increase charitable giving, first, listen to a person’s story and hopes.  Then help them find meaningful options for expressing those hopes through charitable giving.  Then give them opportunities to experience those options – and the potential impact of gifts – emotionally, first-hand if possible.  Then finally, help them with any background information they need to feel comfortable about giving.

My “grand unified theory of donor desire” is simply this:

People are driven by a fundamental search for meaning and belonging and a fundamental need to control their own destinies and make life choices.   These trump data and pre-defined versions of effective philanthropy and nonprofit effectiveness. The more time and resources we can spend on the former, the more use there will be of the latter.

Or am I just being a crotchety old-timer and armchair psychologist?

P.S. – then again, this new effort by Gates, Rockefeller, Buffett and other to get billionaires to publicly pledge to give 50% of their net worth to charity might just trump everything else…

4 thoughts on “Grand Unified Theory of Donor Desire

  1. Tony: Well framed and well written..and affirmed, I do believe, by observable behavior of most individual donors…Instituional donors are another matter alltogether. And this, perhaps, is a distinction worth making with regard to the consideration of new “tools” developed to assist in rational assessment and objective evaluation.

  2. Excellent point, Ken! Both philanthropically-minded institutions and families can benefit from rational evaluation tools, and I ultimately support both using them. It worries me, though, how often foundation staff and philanthropic advisors give the impression that those tools are the only correct way for *anyone* to give. Even foundation staff with great metrics and theories of change still rely on intuition, trust in relationships, and irrational points of view on the world to make decisions. 😉

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