For Stronger Philanthropic Partnerships: Match and Share Back Stories

I wasn’t interested in many Olympic sports until someone came up with the clever idea of preceding them with insightful and inspiring stories about the athletes participating in them. Listening to inspirational stories about how athletes had overcome trauma, injury, and denied opportunities had me pulling for people in sports I had never heard of. That’s the power of the personal backstory. It provides us with the means of identification – and the more we identify with certain athletes, the more fervently we root for their success.

More advancement operations have come to appreciate the importance of discovering donors’ backstories – or where their strongest philanthropic impulses began such as a donor who:

  • Gives to help at-risk teenagers because she was one
  • Provides a scholarship because he was not able to achieve his dream of attending college
  • Contributes to a refugee relief program because his parents fled Nazi Germany
  • Supports medical research because of her family’s genetic predisposition to a certain disease

Indeed, the best philanthropic guides (who some people refer to as fundraisers) seek to learn – or help prospective donors discover – their lives’ most formative forces, then suggest ways that philanthropy will allow them to act on the lessons and convictions that flow from them.

But if we want to build stronger philanthropic partnerships we should realize there are any number of backstories at play. Using the examples above, we might discover that:

  • Our person helping at-risk teens might also had been at risk as a teen
  • The scholarship recipient’s parents may, too, have not fulfilled their dream of attending college
  • Our refugee relief program is being run by a refugee
  • Our medical researcher chose to specialize in a particular disease because it runs in his or her family, too.

When we match the backstories of donors and the doers, we create more powerful, interpersonal connections. We return philanthropy to a people-helping-people paradigm and create the means of turning “gifts” into enduring partnerships – allowing kindred spirits to work together in pursuit of deeply held purposes.

Below are suggestions for matching or sharing backstories to achieve stronger philanthropic partnerships.


Jim Langley is the president of Langley Innovations. Langley Innovations provides a range of services to its clients to help them understand the cultural underpinnings of philanthropy and the psychology of donors and, with that knowledge, to develop the most effective strategies and tactics to build broader and more lasting communities of support. Jim has authored numerous books including his most recent book, The Future of Fundraising: Adapting to New Philanthropic Realities, published by Academic Impressions in 2020. 


Related Resources:


Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Love the term “philanthropic guides.” As a donor data management professional, I have deep respect for these guides. A colleague once described her job as helping people who want to give to find a path to make a difference that is meaningful for them.

Greg Warner
1 year ago
Reply to  Leigh

I love that. Finding a path. Your colleague knows what she is doing. She’s a true facilitator of philanthropy.

Get smarter with the SmartIdeas blog

Subscribe to our blog today and get actionable fundraising ideas delivered straight to your inbox!