Why Donors Give: It’s Not What You Think

Why Donors Give - Image of a Growing Plant

Series: Creating the Conditions for Support

Everyone is trying to raise more money. Rather than simply suggest the next tactic that can boost giving in the short-term, this series offers a more intensive look at the strategic thinking that drives philanthropic support: Why do donors give? How do institutions strengthen their core and emphasize initiatives worthy of support? How do we align strategic plans, strengths, and advancement strategy to create the conditions for ongoing and sustained support? In this series, distinguished current and past chief advancement officers apply their most innovative and creative thinking to this question.

Next in this series:
More than Dollars: How Many Opportunities Are You Missing with Your Alumni?
Engaging Women in Philanthropy: Practical Ways to Shift Our Approach
Checklist: Questions the Governing Board Must Ask Before Launching a Campaign

by Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Given that annual alumni support nationally has been declining for 22 years and that less than one in ten alumni are currently giving back to their alma maters, it is clear that our core practices and the philosophies that underpin them need to change. In short, we need to elicit more and solicit less. And foremost among the thoughts we should be eliciting is why our alumni give to us or to other institutions. Learning more about the why of giving always strengthens our hand with, and our ties to, every kind of donor – prospect and current – and at any point in our relationship.

The Why of Giving: What We Need to Start Asking

The more we study the habits and decisions of individual philanthropists, particularly the most loyal and generous, the more we see how motivated they are by deeply personal experiences. For instance:

  • When we interview an alum who has given generously to cancer research, we learn that she or a loved one has had a direct and searing experience with that disease.
  • Or if we listen to a donor who has provided significant support for a business school, we discover he has a pronounced passion for a particular innovation or practice, which he believes was the key to his success and the lesson that he would most like to pass on to others.

But we only learn these things if we ask donors why they gave. The better we understand the personal why of giving, the more we can optimize the potential of each donor, steward their gifts in a way that is most meaningful to them, and increase the probability of their giving again.

Yet so many institutional leaders assume they understand why someone gave by looking at what they gave to – which might include scholarships, programmatic initiatives, or capital improvements. These are only categories of giving, not motivations for giving.

If we delve more deeply, we see people giving within those categories for a host of personal reasons. For instance, one donor might provide funding for a scholarship to help those in financial need while another is interested in rewarding those who have demonstrated exceptional academic achievement.  Look more deeply still and we see some donors who give in the name of scholarship support to foster the ascendancy of a specific ethnic populations or to promote gender equity, and others who are primarily interested in supporting those who study a specific discipline or intend to pursue a specific career. If we ask them why, we learn that they are motivated by “what life has taught me” and that they see philanthropy as a means of passing on those lessons to a younger generation.

With this insight, let us look at three donor populations where we may be missing the greatest opportunities:

  1. Current donors who give more to other organizations
  2. Alumni who give generously to other institutions but not ours
  3. First-time donors


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More from Jim Langley

Jim Langley is the author of a series of powerful fundraising guides for campus leaders: Fundraising for Presidents, Fundraising for Deans, Fundraising for Boards, and Comprehensive Fundraising Campaigns.

Fundraising Guides for University Leaders by Jim Langley

“This is is a treasure trove of great advice, forward-thinking reflections, and the tough, but much needed questions that presidents, boards, vice presidents and deans need to ask one another before embarking on a fundraising campaign.”
Matthew T. Lambert, Vice President for University Advancement, William & Mary