On Donor Giving: Capacity vs. Inclination

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about donors and why they give. Do they support our organizations out of an obligation to give back to society? Are they passionate about our cause? Do they trust us? Or do they give because of the benefits they get out of it – tax deductions, name recognition or even awards?

As fundraisers our role is to understand the “why” of the donor and to match it with the “what” of the organization.

In the process of trying to match donors with organizational programs and funding priorities we often get caught in the “capacity vs. inclination” struggle. Many large NGOs have many, many  loyal donors who have been giving modest sums of money for years but who rarely or never get the personal attention that a traditional major gift or planned giving prospect might get. While those major and planned giving donors can and do give transformational gifts, it is important to remember our loyal donors and allow them the opportunity to do something with their legacy.

A colleague of mine recently observed that we owe it to them, the donors, to give them a chance to do something truly remarkable – to leave a legacy behind – for themselves and for the organization. Part of this is understanding what a donor’s philanthropic priorities are and what their personal philanthropic mission is. Another part of this is preparing your loyal donors and giving them the means and knowledge to remember our organizations in their estates or other planned giving vehicles.

We have all, I’m sure, heard of the “millionaire next door” story and how the unassuming couple with the 20-year-old car and 50-year-old home left, out of the blue, a large gift to their church or to the university where they met. While it’s impossible to count on these gifts or to track them, it does remind us to not forget about those donors whose inclination and connection to our organization is so strong.

I’m reminded of a donor who, when he passed away, left an estate gift of $2.6 million to a local nonprofit that operated throughout his state. It is not just the size of the gift that is remarkable but what is also amazing is how he had a visionary outlook for how he wanted those funds to be used: a portion for capital use, a portion for local use in his community, a portion for sending underserved kids to summer camp, and a portion for providing social services to the underserved. The donor had never given more than a few hundred dollars in a single year, so he had never gotten the personal attention of development staff. He did however, take the time to learn about the organization, do his research on his own, and make what he knew would be a transformational gift for the organization.

Capacity is important, but let’s not overlook inclination. Let’s not ignore the donors who have given for 5, 10, 15+ years. You never know. They might be ready to talk about their legacy. They might even be ready to make a transformational change for your organization. 

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