4 Primal Motives for Major Gifts – the REAL Reasons People Make Transformational Gifts

Understanding the motives for why donors make major gifts is a big part of successful fundraising. This is how we can relate to a donor and make offers that will resonate with them. And there are many tangible reasons why donors give, such as righting wrongs and honoring a family member or friend.

But we need to look deeper.

There are also primal motives for giving that the donors themselves are probably not even aware of. These motives underlie most external and verbally stated reasons for giving. Take away the stated reason for giving, and the donor will still find another reason to make a gift because there is something more primal going on inside them.

Understanding these primal motives for major gifts will help you commit to the most effective processes for fundraising because you will know why those processes work. The best fundraising practices aren’t gimmicks. They tap into the core of human desire.

The 4 Motives for Major Gifts

By the way, we didn’t just pull these ideas out of a hat. These major giving motivations come from the research of Dr. Russell James, a member of The National Association of Charitable Gift Planners Hall of Fame, who was inducted because of his lifetime of groundbreaking research into the field of major and planned giving.

He has conducted extensive experimentation and studied the work of others, and unearthed these four primal motives as part of his work.

To gain all the insights from Dr. James’ work, have your team take our eCourse based on his work, Donor Story: Epic Fundraising. Here are the four motives for giving.

Subjective Similarity – “I’m like them”

Just like people respond with the greatest passion to stories when they identify with characters in them, they give to organizations that find a way – on purpose or by accident – to identify with some aspect of the donor’s identity.

Donors can feel a common or shared identity with organizations through various means.

For example, they might identify with your organization’s values. A simple affinity or allegiance to what you stand for may be all it takes to win them for life if those values mean a great deal to them. But similarity can be found in many other places such as:

  • A particular beneficiary or group of beneficiaries
  • A specific fundraiser who connected with them or who they know from somewhere else
  • Demographic similarities – same age, same birthday, same college, same name

Identifying with beneficiaries is why sharing stories of the impact of your work is so important. This works especially well when donors see some aspect of themselves in the people your organization is helping.

But other aspects of shared identity are much more… inane.

Shared Identity Matters – Even in Trivial Details

As an example, one University of Missouri study looked at 27 years of major gift proposals. It found that when female major gift prospects were solicited by female fundraisers, they gave more often, gave bigger amounts, and were more likely to give again.

Now, why should that matter? It shouldn’t, right? Donors give to the cause, not because the fundraiser is a woman. As it turns out, this sort of thing isn’t an anomaly.

Another study found something even more crazy.

They used an education project as a means of fundraising for a university. If the project was led by a teacher who simply shared the donor’s first name, giving doubled!

How silly, right? Why would you donate more simply because you share a name with someone you don’t even know who led an education project?

But this is the idea behind primal forces. Again, these donors probably don’t even realize they are acting this way. They would give a different reason if asked for their motive for giving. But underneath that, there is a primal force of identity in play. They feel a common bond that goes beyond reason and external logic. That’s why we call this subjective similarity.

Held against the rules of reason and logic, it makes no sense. But it’s real.

This is why using appreciative inquiry to learn about donors and prospects is so important, using questions such as these:

  • Why do you care?
  • Did someone influence you to care?
  • What part of our mission is important to you?

Knowing the power of subjective similarity, all things being equal, if you have a fundraiser who shares something in common with a prospect – even something as innocuous as gender or the same name – send that person to meet with them.

You do appreciative inquiry for many reasons. One of them is to find sources of subjective similarity that you can use to motivate the primal instinct to share with someone who is like them.

Reciprocal Alliance – “I’m with them”

Beyond subjective similarity, which you have less ability to influence – though you do have some – you can also tap into the motive of reciprocal alliance.

Here, you don’t just share something in common. Now, you are on the same team. You’re in this together. There is a partnership of some sort in play here. People are more likely to be generous and helpful with people when they share an alliance with them, even something as simple as watering the neighbor’s yard while they’re on vacation. We do this because we know later on we might ask that neighbor to do the same for us.

Making major gifts can operate in the same reciprocal manner.

The key to a reciprocal alliance is that the gift is seen by others. This will motivate them to reciprocate. This is why matching and leading gifts work. This person gave a big gift, and they’re asking you to reciprocate by giving alongside them.

Do you see the partnership in play here?

People make gifts based on reciprocal alliance when they feel a shared sense of importance.

I’m important to them, so I need to help. Or, they’re important to me, so I want to help.

Reciprocity increases when the donor feels a strong sense of confidence that this is a stable, permanent organization. This is why a Coutts Report found that over two thirds of all donations over $1 million go to universities that already hold large endowments or foundations.

People give more when they believe their gift will make a lasting difference. That’s what they get in return from the ‘partnership.’

The Power of Gifts and Surveys

This is why offering gifts to donors and prospects is so effective. What kinds of gifts? Ones that feel special, valuable, and personal. But not trinkets or gift cards. Not overly expensive gifts. Not necessarily even financial in nature. A good gift is one that motivates reciprocity, not a transactional feeling of “I have to give because they gave this to me.”

This is why MarketSmart uses surveys. A survey is a gift, because it expresses a desire to know their thoughts and opinions. Likewise, special reports, webinars, opportunities to share their story or speak at an event – these gifts have no monetary value, and yet they motivate reciprocity.

The Drive to Win and Defeat a Challenge

People react differently to challenges and needs. Some shrink back. Others stand up and try to meet and overcome it.

Some donors give because of this primal motive. They think things like:

  • I can make a difference
  • I can be your hero
  • I need a hero

We want someone to look up to, to inspire us, to motivate us. But when it seems like no one else is doing it, some donors decide that hero has to be them. They are the one who must take on the challenge and win the battle.

Our culture of TV and movies has made this concept ubiquitous, so much that some people think it’s played out. But it isn’t. And it never will be. Because this desire to see challenges defeated and hardships overcome is hard-wired into humanity.

Why Gratitude Works

You motivate major gifts based on this primal motive in part through how you express gratitude.

When donors see and feel the impact of their gift, they feel they have made a difference and won a victory over whatever ‘villainous’ challenge stood in their way or in the way of the people their gift has helped.

Your simple act of reporting on how their gift was used confirms to the donor that their act of heroism was not in vain. It’s a big deal.

This motive for giving also provides another reason to use donor surveys that ask prospects to talk about their values and beliefs.

When a donor sees something threatening their values, that’s a challenge, an opposition, an enemy, a battle that calls them to arms, so to speak. Their weapon is their wallet – their ability to give a transformational gift.

As you uncover donor values and beliefs, you are also helping the donor see that your organization is working to advance what they care about in the world. You are forging an alliance with them, so they can fight for what they believe in – through your organization.

Become the Best Version of Myself

When donors realize that by giving, they also improve themselves, the motive for giving grows much stronger. You want donors to think things like this:

  • This donation is totally worth it!
  • I’m not just giving. I’m sharing.
  • People like me do things like this
  • I believe in this

Do you see the communal thread running through these statements?

Donors may give to feel like they are living as the best version of themselves, but they do this knowing that a community relies on more than one person acting this way. They know we need a large enough group of people to put the community ahead of themselves in order to have a healthy, thriving, safe, growing place that is better for everyone.

Consider the phrase, “People like me do things like this.”

If the donor sees themselves as a hero, as a partner in an alliance, as part of a community, then they see themselves as someone who gives to make their world a better place. That’s “people like me.” Life is about more than just them.

And if other people similar in some way to the donor are doing something that matters to the donor, the donor believes they should be doing it too. Aligning with the shared identity of the community helps the donor feel like they are defeating a challenge and becoming the best version of themselves. That’s “do things like this.” That one phrase – people like me do things like this – encapsulates all four primal motives for major gifts.

More Fundraising Studies

Many fundraising studies have explored this idea. One exceptional study looked at students from a Swedish university and asked for donations. Prospects were broken into three groups, which were told at random one of three things:

  • Group 1: Told nothing else
  • Group 2: Told that 73% of university students in Sweden made this gift when asked
  • Group 3: Told that 73% of university students at their university made this gift when asked

Notice how the shared identity increases in each group. Group three is the most like the students being studied. How did the results come out?

44% of the first group donated, and 60% of the second group donated, which shared the common trait of being a Swedish university student. But 79% of the third group donated.

Why? Because if “people like me do things like donating,” then I will donate too because I want to become the best version of myself.

How to Tap into Primal Motives for Giving

As you’ve seen, the use of donor surveys does a lot more than simply collect information.

The survey acts as a gift that motivates reciprocity. The survey delivers value. The survey reveals information you can use to connect with a donor’s identity and values to motivate bigger gifts.

MarketSmart’s automated donor discovery and qualification system uses surveys for all these purposes and more. We use this to measure how far along a donor is in the process of making a major gift.

Only when donors are ready and able to give, and willing to meet with a gift officer, do you need to expend personnel resources reaching out to them. And with what you will learn in the surveys, you can also make a more informed decision of which gift officer to send to them.

Our system motivates more gifts, and bigger gifts. It also saves countless hours for overworked gift officers who no longer have to chase people who don’t want to meet with them and can’t give transformational gifts.

And, it increases nonprofit revenue so much that we now offer a 10:1 ROI Guarantee. You will make at least ten times when you spend on the system.

Want to see how it works?

Schedule a free demo of MarketSmart

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Russell James
Russell James
4 months ago

This is a wonderful summary! Thanks so much for putting this together.

4 months ago
Reply to  Russell James

Of course, and thank YOU for all your support.

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