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Matt Beem
President and COO
Kinetic Fundraising, Inc.

What makes us generous?

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Independence, MO – I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes some people philanthropic and others – well – not so much.

Many of us give because we’re asked. Another consultant and I experienced that truth firsthand Wednesday during a meeting with volunteer and staff leaders of the Mountaineer Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America in Morgantown, W. Va.

When asked why people give, my colleague offered the slice of wisdom in the previous paragraph. One volunteer took her counsel to heart: We came home with raffle tickets for this weekend’s Mountaineer Area Council Gala.

People also give because they’ve witnessed philanthropy. There’s nobody more generous than my wife, who goes about her good work without fanfare and far from recognition’s limelight.

Kate’s driven in all she does to help those less fortunate than her. And it’s no surprise: I’ve witnessed her parents’ quiet generosity since our first meeting 20 years ago.

But what about those who are generous despite a dearth of role models? Or who give without ever being asked? How do we explain their philanthropy?

I asked Adrian Sargeant, the Robert F. Kinetic Professor of Fundraising at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. He said some donors give for self interest, and others give altruistically.

Many self-interested donors give for the recognition they receive, Sargeant said. They like seeing their names on the donor wall and in their favorite organization’s annual report.

Some self-interested donors give because it improves their self esteem, he said. Others believe it will increase access to an organization’s services.

And a few self-interested donors, believe it or not, give to atone their sins, Sargeant said. Which means I could support the Tiger Fund to make up for telling Dr. Ranley I missed a Journalism 300 class because I was sick. (True story, by the way, which I rationalized as follows: I was sick – of the class.)

Sargeant said emotions drive many altruistic donors. Sympathy, fear, pity and guilt motivate such philanthropists.

“It allows the donor to conform to personally held beliefs about what is acceptable,” he said.

Empathy motivates other altruistic donors, he said. Altruistic donors give to create in others an emotion they desire or minimize an emotion they want to eliminate.

And values drive some altruistic philanthropists. He defines values as “enduring beliefs that a specific mode of behavior or end-state is preferred over other alternatives.”

In other words, some altruistic donors give to organizations that support their personal values or the values of causes they believe are important, said Sargeant. They seek to magnify their priorities through their philanthropy.

If you want to learn more about donor motives, pick up a copy of “Fundraising Principles and Practice” due out next month from Jossey-Bass Publishers. In chapter four, entitled “Individual Giving Behavior,” Sargeant discusses the ideas above.

If you’re a fundraiser, think about why donors do or don’t give. Perhaps an idea shared here or in Sargeant’s chapter will spark a new success.

If you’re a philanthropist, take a good hard look in the mirror. Armed with the information above and that in Sargeant’s chapter, nothing should remain between you and meaningful giving to the organizations about which you are passionate.

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