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Understanding Donors

Legal Counsel for Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector

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Understanding Donors


This article, by Ken Hoffman, originally appeared in Third Sector on January 21, 1999.

If Freud asked, 'What do women want?' charity staff are forever asking: 'What do donors want?' Twenty years into the hunt and I am still amazed at the variety of answers.

Start with foundations and trusts. There is the occasional exception that proves the rule - the foundation that cheerfully gives general support year after year. How I have relished those rare meetings, where the foundation director leans back in the chair and asks, 'Tell me, Ken, what have you been doing this past year?'

Life is usually harsher. At least once a year, our foundation friends give us the opportunity to repackage our programme. It's still the same programme, of course. But if we said that out loud, we'd have one less grant in our hands. The essential truth, I think, is that foundations like to be tickled by new ideas. New idea, another grant. No new idea, no grant.

Then consider the folks over at the corporate contributions office. Better? No. Different? Yes. What I like most about corporations is they want something from us and they're not ashamed to say so. No foundation highmindedness claiming that their grants programme will change the world. The corporate creed is, 'Make us look good.'

Corporations have three audiences, anyone of which we can address, First, there are the company owners, whether a single individual or, through a joint stock company, members of the public. Second, the employees. Third, the public at large.

Every major US corporation will consider these audiences when making corporate contributions.

That leaves individuals. Experience palls, imagination fails. After two decades, I still can't figure out useful conclusions about what motivates most individual donors. Some want their names up in lights, others will only give anonymously (which usually means the knowledge is limited to those who can return the favour). Some will only give either large gifts or no gifts at all, nothing in between - and that really annoys my clients, as it drives down the overall participation rate. Many individual donors respond to a charity leader they know - perhaps a charismatic founder or a senior staff member.

That leaves us with only our wits to meet the differing aims of donors. Think of your charity's programme as a piece of apple strudel. But we can't sell it to the donors just as a slice of strudel. To the foundation, the pitch is: We have developed the most amazing strudel: less expensive to bake, better tasting, fewer calories - we will solve world hunger... with just a one-year grant from your foundation. And the recipe is replicable in other kitchens.'

To the corporation, the pitch is: 'We have developed the most amazing strudel. This stuff is going to be everywhere on earth within twelve months, And if YOU sponsor us, YOUR name will be on every piece of strudel, to the delight of your owners, employees, and neighbours.'

And to the individual who knows and admires Robert, our charity's charismatic founder and chairman of the board, maybe the pitch is: 'Strudel. Robert loves strudel.'

Don't try to beat the system, just try to understand it, or at least to outguess it.

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