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Five questions to uncover donor motivations

Vice President (Former)

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“So, why do you support our organization?” This seems like a simple question that many times goes unasked.

Donors are fascinating, unique individuals who consider multiple motivations when deciding how, when, and why to be charitable. It is no longer enough to say, “Our donors give because they care about our mission.” Perhaps they do care about your mission, but they also care about their missions. Therefore, it is important for us to ask, “What other motivating factors might be at play?”

While it’s critical to have a strong understanding of our donors’ demographics, contact information, and giving history, a comprehensive donor profile should also include known philanthropy to other organizations, any indications of philanthropic motivation, and what challenges they believe philanthropy can solve.

Motivation-based questions, asked and documented at any stage of the donor relationship, provide timeless information about the donor’s mindset and their history with charitable giving.

As you think about engaging your prospects, ask yourself:

  • Has the relational foundation been established?
  • What don’t we know about our donor?
  • What’s critical to understand?

Information can be gathered in typical donor meetings, in small groups, or at events. Empower your Executive Director or Board Chair to uncover new information when they meet with donor prospects.

Five questions to uncover donor motivations

1. How have you and your family fared during the pandemic? 

Objective: Understand the donor’s current circumstances regarding inclination and capacity.

Listen for: Were there any deaths in the family?  (This is an opportunity to express empathy and to explore what this relationship meant to your donor.  Down the line, they could be inclined to honor this person with a gift to your organization.) Were there any disruptions to employment personally or in their family?  (Are they now responsible for supporting additional family members who lost jobs during the pandemic?)  Did they have investments in the stock market that performed well over the past 18 months? (And how do they feel about this?)

2. How did you first become involved with our organization?

Objective: Gain insight into what drew them to your organization and/or tap into their emotional connection to your mission.

Listen for:  At what age did they become aware of your organization?  (Was it a transformative time in life?)  What were some of their early experiences in association with your organization?  (Were these positive experiences? Are they nostalgic?) Are they still in touch with anyone from that period of time?  (What connection remains today – outside of their relationship with you?)

3. Where does [ORGANIZATION] fall among your philanthropic priorities?

Objective: Understand priorities and interests.

Listen for: Listen to the literal answer (how much of a priority is your organization?), but also interpret what this could mean for your organization. Is a hospital among their top philanthropic priorities?  Then you might ask whether the donor would be interested in supporting the medical school, nursing program, or health sciences degree at your university.

4. What do you do in your free time? 

Objective: Evaluate interests, capacity, and priorities.

Listen for: Are they involved with other organizations? (How are they involved?  Would they want to do that for you?)  Do they spend a lot of time on expensive leisure activities, on travel, or at second homes?  Do young children keep them busy, or are they empty nesters?

5. What are your plans for the holidays? 

Objective: Get them talking about family to gain insights into capacity and priorities.

Listen for: How many family members/generations will be gathering? Do they have children?  Do they have aging parents? Are there any houses in the family big enough to host large groups? Are they using the holiday season for exotic or extensive travel?

Eliminate assumptions to create personalized cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship strategies

After your donor answers several questions, confirm what you heard: “I want to make sure I understand/have this correct.  You have been a long-time supporter because…” Remember this mantra: Repeat, confirm, document.

Healthcare professionals take an oath to “do no harm.” We believe fundraising professionals should take an oath to “make no assumptions.” For example, while an alumnus of your institution may have graduated with an economics degree, consider their current interests and activities as possible motivations for giving before assuming they will only want to support their former degree program.

Once we have a better understanding of donor motivation, we can customize and align cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship. This customization meets your donors where they are. What did your donors share?

Four common donor motivations for charitable giving

Academic research on donor motivations tells us multiple motivations can be at play. Based on research from Bekkers and Weipking (2011) and Worth et al. (2019), let’s explore four common motivations for charitable giving:

1. The donor is motivated by cost and benefits

The definition: A donor who is motivated by “costs and benefits” is inclined to give due to the problem philanthropy can solve (tax incentive or annuity) or because of a benefit they receive (concert or sports tickets). They might view philanthropy purely as a business transaction.

The alignment: Solicit gifts that offer a benefit to the donor. For example, a $10k contribution that qualifies for a special suite at a football game.

The stewardship: These donors especially appreciate a timely gift acknowledgement and the professionalism of the fundraiser and their organization.

2. The donor is motivated by reputation

The definition: A donor who is motivated by their reputation may be interested in visible philanthropy that showcases their commitment to the organization. They may also want to use their gift to inspire others to contribute.

The alignment: Solicit gifts that can be celebrated publicly. These gifts can come with naming opportunities or recognition from organization leaders. For example, a $10k contribution that will name a current use scholarship.

The stewardship: Acknowledge the gift and the donor to an audience that is important to them (the entire community or just their family and friends). Make the donor feel validated and appreciated by receiving opportunities to engage with beneficiaries, being featured in the press, and receiving external recognition for their contribution.

3. The donor is motivated by impact or influence

The definition: Donors may be interested in impacting their community, your organization, or a broader societal ill through their philanthropy.

The alignment: Solicit gifts that have a measurable outcome. For example, a $10k contribution that sends a teacher on a research study.

The stewardship: Demonstrate impact through quantitative data and reporting, and illustrate measurable change through storytelling.

4. The donor is motivated by altruism

The definition: Donors motivated by altruism are selflessly concerned for the wellbeing of others. They may say, “It makes me feel good to give back to my alma mater” or “I funded a scholarship at the university because meeting the student scholarship recipients brings me such joy.”

The alignment: Solicit gifts that support the donor’s self-perception as altruistic. For example, a $10k gift to an unrestricted or emergency fund to cover unintended expenses.

The stewardship: While some gifts motivated by altruism are made anonymously, donors will want to feel as if they have “done good” for your organization. Their recognition might not need to be complex, but it should be from the heart.

Having a comprehensive understanding of your donors will give you insight into their mindset and the motivations behind their giving. Different donors will have different motivations for a variety of reasons—you can use this knowledge to personalize your appeals. These targeted donation requests will increase giving to your nonprofit, and help you strengthen your connection with your donors.

If you’re looking for more resources about donor communication and stewardship best practices, check out some of the resources below!

Additional Resources

Why Donor Qualification Is Key to Fundraising Success – Learn more about what donor qualification is and how it can help you in your fundraising.

Building a Case for Support That Inspires Action: 5 Steps – After researching donor motivations, make sure to put your insights into action when convincing donors to support you. Follow these steps to build a compelling case for support.

Identifying Planned Giving Prospects in Your Current Donor Pool – Planned gifts allow donors to make a major commitment to an organization. Read more about finding planned giving prospects here.

Jennifer Herrmann and Anna Schlia are Vice Presidents at Graham-Pelton.

Sources cited: “A Literature Review of Empirical Studies of Philanthropy: Eight Mechanisms That Drive Charitable Giving” by René Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking and “Understanding Motivations of Mega‐Gift Donors to Higher Education: A Qualitative Study” by Michael J. Worth, Sheela Pandey, Sanjay K. Pandey, and Suhail Qadummi.. 

Connect with Graham-Pelton to discuss your fundraising needs.