Fundraising – What motivates people to give?

The following article, an opinion piece, will be published in Fundraising New Zealand in January 2017.

When I started out in professional fundraising more than 30 years ago, one of my earliest teachers was the great Harold (Si) Seymour.  His book “Designs for Fund-Raising:  Patterns, Principles, Techniques”[1] was required reading, particularly for those who were interested in running a Capital Campaign.  This little book was first published in 1966 and it’s fair to say that much of the content reflected the social context of the time.  It was a world where giving and volunteering was embedded as “what we do” and civic duty was expected.  There were fewer fully professionalised not-for-profit organisations and high levels of participation and volunteer involvement meant that, for sports teams for example, membership dues covered the administration and activities of the club and its members. On the surface society was more unified about what constituted community “good”.  The majority of people attended some church on a regular basis and for many “good works” (including giving) were part of their faith and values system.

I realise this may sound utopian to some and fill others with horror, but it is the milieu Seymour wrote in.  He maintained that there were two universal aspirations.  The first is “pride of association”.  This relates to the human desire to feel loved and have purpose – this is played out through participation in a worthwhile group.  This is the motivation fundraisers appeal to when we encourage donors to “join us”, and “work together to solve xyz” and when we acknowledge the difference their gift is making.  Such pride of association requires a base of loyalty and a positive disposition to the group, so activity is designed to build a sense of belonging and loyalty (“this is your charity”) and rituals including the AGM, the Annual Report and the donor thank you functions reinforce this.

The second universal aspiration is “responsible concern for continuity”.  This can be seen today in fundraising appeals by alumni bodies e.g. “we were there for you, will you be there for the students of tomorrow” and even by sports groups when they emphasise that the sporting greats all started with the grassroots clubs.  You hear overtones of this too when organisations celebrating significant anniversaries speak of the glorious past, the relevant present and the visionary future.

You might think all of this is an interesting bit of history and wonder what it has to do with fundraising today so can I remind you that this was the social environment in which many of our current donors learned their giving habits.

In fundraising today we talk a lot about donor-centricity.  That’s good because it means we aspire to treat each donor as an individual or at least try to focus more on donor needs than our charity’s.  In reality, we throw a whole lot of technique at it.  We research donors and prospects, we use “you” more than “we” in our communications and we attempt to creatively thank everyone the required five times.  A bit harsh?  I wonder whether we are in danger of turning fundraising into a subset of marketing where customers are replaced with donors, products with programmes and the fundraiser’s role is to compete against other organisations to get the largest share of the “fundraising dollar”?

The more I hear and read from the current fundraising influencers, the more I am concerned that we have forgotten about Philanthropy.  In particular, the altruistic expression of “doing good, because good needs to be done”.  Philanthropy (from Greek φιλανθρωπία) means etymologically, the love of humanity, in the sense of caring, nourishing, developing, and enhancing what it means to be human.  Therefore, the decision to engage in philanthropy is a voluntary exchange.  Gifts obtained under pressure lose their meaning because in such a transaction the donor is denied the ability to experience the joy of giving.  There is a creative energy, a sense of self-worth, that is satisfied in a philanthropic exchange.

If we muddy the exchange by offering something of material value in return, it becomes quid pro quo and is no longer philanthropy.  This is arguably also the case when the gift is provoked by negative emotion or the donor is coerced.  A good example of negative emotion is when an appeal is made on negative emotions such as hate, fear, pity, disgust etc.

Over my time in fundraising I have concluded that the following are the most important factors that influence the donor’s motivation to give.  This has been supported by several studies in the past few years.

  1. Belief in the Mission of the organisation or cause that is asking for support is paramount.
  2. Community responsibility / civic pride (far from being the product of a past generation it is worthwhile reflecting on this as what is motivating super-rich to divest assets in charitable works during their lifetime.)
  3. Fiscal stability of organisation – because you want to be sure your money is well used, not wasted.
  4. Regard for staff leadership – this implies a personal connection and understanding of the day to day work of the organisation and the quality of the staff and/or relational connectedness.
  5. Regard for volunteer leadership – because it is often a fellow volunteer who asks for the gift and the quality of the volunteer leadership speaks volumes for the mana of the organisation. Worthwhile, effective organisations attract great volunteers!
  6. Service on a Board or committee – once again personal experience in governance means that the donor has engaged with the work and life of the organisation in a way which develops their pride of association and desire to contribute. Who asks counts!

Conversely, I would say that there are three things that are least important in influencing a donor’s decision to give.  They are:

  1. Guilt / obligation – this relates to negative appeals mentioned above, but also to the voluntary nature of philanthropy. Just because someone CAN give, does not mean they WILL give.
  2. Appeal of promotional materials. Obviously thoughtful use of printed and visual materials is helpful, but it can only be the starting point for a conversation which concludes with an ask.
  3. Tax considerations do not motivate people to give, but a proper understanding of the ways in which giving can be structured to take advantage of tax benefits will often enable larger gifts than those first proposed.

It is worth commenting on the rise of Venture Philanthropy.  This tends to take the form of a donor actively engaging directly with a cause rather than expressing their philanthropy through an established organisation.  Sometimes the donor, intentionally or unintentionally, ends up founding a new charity for the cause they are passionate about.  Venture Philanthropy is therefore a sign of the donor’s belief that existing organisations are not addressing the cause or need that the donor sees as important, or at least not addressing it in a way the donor can engage with.

So, what does that mean for organisations who are addressing societal problems that are multi-factorial and complex?  I think it means that there is a huge responsibility to educate donors about the detail, predeterminants and consequences of the needs; before we ask them to invest in our Mission.  It is this personal engagement that engenders ownership of the problem and potentialmission-vision-and-values solutions.

I work for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) and, as part of my role, I work with parishes to develop a Christian Giving ethos.  Given that a lot of our fundraising history is formed in a Judeo-Christian mindset, you might wonder what motivates Christian Giving as distinct from philanthropic giving.

In Christian Giving the first principle is that our God is a giving God.  All our possessions, our time, our skills and relationships are gifts of God.  We are stewards of these things and we hold them in trust for God.  Therefore, it is not about giving to the institution of the Church because the Church needs it, but being prepared to surrender to God what is His.

Christian Giving then is a matter of faith and spiritual maturity.  Does that mean all Christians approach their giving in the same way?  Unfortunately not, but this can often relate to a lack of understanding of the Church’s call to Mission.

In sharing this example of what makes Christian Giving different from philanthropic giving, I would like to make the point that the donor’s involvement in and ownership of the Mission of the organisation: be it a charity, a sports club or a church; is the single most important factor in determining whether they will give to it.

That takes us back to where we started with “pride of association” as the top motivator to give.  The powerful connection between the values of the donor, the mission of the organisation engendered in a shared vision of a preferred future therefore becomes the optimal basis for thoughtful and successful fundraising in my opinion.

[1] Seymour, Harold J, Designs for Fund-Raising: Principles, Patterns, Techniques, 1966, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Rockville, Maryland. Latest reprint 1996.

Lisa Wells (c), January 2017



3 thoughts on “Fundraising – What motivates people to give?

  1. Thanks Lisa. This is a well written and thought out paper. I would add I have clients that have been turned off charities (particularly the big social events) because of the bullying and shaming of attendees to not give more on the night. Given my profession and experience, I can confirm that direct giving to your charity of choice is the best tax “bang” for your dollar. Spending $500 on a ticket to a Charity Ball sees very little actually getting to the charity (and no tax deduction). Giving via professional charity agents (usually the cold call telephone ones) can see as much as 75% going in commission to the professional agent, not the charity.


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