Understanding Donor Motivation, One Person at a Time

Image via npengage.com
Image via npengage.com

By Barb Maduell

The classic book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” gave a cultural tagline to the notion of a vast and insurmountable psychological divide between genders. Though not as dramatic, a recent study by Stanford University examined the motivations of male and female donors. The study found that men were more motivated by appeals that explained how a donation would benefit them, rather than others, especially when it came to missions addressing society’s neediest members.

The study gave several possible explanations for this so-called “empathy gap,” and it got me thinking about a client organization that serves young victims of abuse or neglect. Not only are most of their volunteer fundraising leaders men, but their motivations for giving are diverse; they range from being inspired by new science demonstrating that young brains can be wired for resilience, to the emotional connection of a century-long family legacy of involvement, to (here’s the one the study would validate) the long-term economic benefits of early intervention.

Try this “test” within your own organization. It’s a good reminder that while patterns of donor behavior do help us prioritize our time, donors don’t give, a donor gives. And – perhaps most importantly – each donor’s motivations may, and probably will, change over time.

Here are five simple steps to discover what motivates individual donors, regardless of their gender:

  1. After a first gift, add one question to a personal thank you call: what inspired you to give? Was it a friend who invited them to an event, a specific appeal letter, or the ease of navigating your website?
  2. After a second gift, revise the question slightly: what inspired you to give again? Was it a meeting with the CEO, a compelling impact report, or a note from a board member?
  3. When preparing for a meeting with a major gifts prospect, take stock of what you already know, and what you want to know. You may know they care about homelessness; you may not know that they’ve grown to care deeply about addiction issues. Likewise, you may know all the arts organizations they support; you may not know they also support medical research for a condition affecting a family member.
  4. Invite loyal donors of all giving levels to share why they’ve continued to make your organization a philanthropic priority. Despite shifts and changes in the needs you are meeting, what has been the consistent value your mission enables them to live out more fully?
  5. Dedicate regular time at staff and board meetings for individual members to share why they continue to dedicate time, talent, and resources. Understanding why your closest stakeholders chose to serve your mission – and why they continue to do so – is one of the best ways you can honor their work.

Research on donor behavior can and should always inform our work. See trends as a starting point for the real work of stewardship: understanding the very personal motivations of each donor who supports your mission.

Barbara Maduell, JD, CFRE, is a Senior Consultant at Collins Group, a division of Campbell & Company. Campbell & Company offers services in fundraising, communications, and executive search, and has partnered with more than 2,000 organizations, from coast to coast, over four decades.