What Happens When We Don’t Understand the Why of Giving

Not as many people give according to our “strategic pillars” as we would like to believe or as our fundraising reports suggest. In fact, we make a mistake in setting up gift accounting systems according to those pillars in the false belief that most people will give according to what we want. That is proving increasingly less true.

When people give for other purposes than those we have offered, we make them fit into our accounting categories, looking for the closest approximation between what we wanted them to do and what they actually did. Sometimes our interpretations prove to be highly creative. Unfortunately, that means we may have failed to accurately record the difference between what we wanted and what donors wanted actually gave to and, therefore, to make the necessary market adjustments in subsequent fundraising efforts.

While we may have recorded the why of giving in the profiles of the major donors, we don’t acknowledge the blocs of why among larger groups of donors. If we have recorded the deep why of major gifts, we can be nurturing stewards and thereby turn a gift into an enduring, mutually satisfying partnership. But if we fail to record the deeper why of groups of first-time donors and modest givers (who might be quite generous within their means), we fail to steward those groups in our institutional response and reports and we miss the opportunity to come alongside them in a way that will leave them feeling represented by our organizations.

Distinct donor blocs may include:

  • Those who gave out of personal gratitude for the services we rendered to them or to a loved one
  • Those who give only for exigent purposes (such as disaster relief or to alleviate hardship)
  • Those who give occasionally but will not give regularly
  • Those who give modestly annually but will resist all efforts to increase their giving levels (who nonetheless often go on to leave remarkable estate commitments)
  • Those who gave of their own volition without being influenced in any way by our promotional materials

Our inability to recognize these blocs means that we:

  • Have failed to acknowledge that our giving options are not as attractive as we have imagined
  • Are not likely to adjust our giving options according to changing philanthropic interests and behaviors
  • Won’t effectively report back to those blocs about the impact they were hoping to have
  • Are likely to continue to apply fundraising strategies that groups of donors find inapt if not irritating.
  • Will continue to experience a loss of donors without understanding why or what to do about it

The only way to reverse this trends to conduct follow up interviews or surveys shortly after gifts are made to ask why and identify distinct groupings – which can become communities within our larger community if we acknowledge their existence and respond in ways they find rewarding and meaningful.


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. 

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