Two Major Factors that Demotivate Donors

I recently spent a fair bit of time teaching graduate students, in my “Advanced Fund Development” class at Drexel University, about what factors motivate major and planned gift donors. Much research has been done and much has certainly been written on the subject. I even felt strongly enough about the topic to have devoted a full chapter to it in my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing.

While it is critically important to understand what motivates people to donate money and, more specifically, to make major and planned gifts, it is also necessary to recognize how individuals can become demotivated.

While an organization’s being polarizing (see my previous post about The Salvation Army), self-centered, or running afoul of the factors that motivate people will certainly demotivate prospective donors, there are two particular demotivating factors that are especially noteworthy. The George Washington University discovered the two factors in a focus group study it commissioned involving university alumni.

Taking care of family is a primal need.

One of the biggest deterrents to making bequest commitments is the universally held belief:

Family comes first.

That’s to say, family comes before any nonprofit organization. The priority for most individuals is to take care of their loved ones. This often means keeping wealth within the family. To respond to this concern, organizations need to show prospects how a meaningful gift can be made, at a minimum, without asking loved ones to suffer. When possible, prospects should be shown how a planned gift can actually benefit loved ones. Consider this example from the Smithsonian Institution that was shared with me by John B. Kendrick:

When I first arrived at the Smithsonian Institution as Director of Planned Giving, a colleague recommended that I contact Cliff, a person who had responded to a [Charitable Gift Annuity] advertisement in Smithsonian magazine a few months before. Cliff wanted to make sure the Smithsonian was strong financially. At age 96, he was still incredibly alert mentally, and he wanted to provide a lifetime income for his wife, who was nearly 20 years younger.

He appreciated the Smithsonian, but frankly was more concerned about the safety of her guaranteed payments than supporting a particular charitable purpose. A consultant to the Smithsonian had traded more than 20 e-mails with Cliff, who originally inquired about a $10,000 CGA.

As he became convinced of the Smithsonian’s financial strength, he quickly increased his inquiry to a CGA for $1 million. But no one had ever called him—they had simply been trading e-mails! I telephoned Cliff, and the discussion quickly progressed; within another two months he sent in stock certificates to establish a $500,000 CGA for his wife. Over the next year, he created two additional $500,000 CGAs for his wife—for a total of $1.5 million.

But that’s not the end of the story.

He had a son who was not strong with money management. Cliff still actively managed his own finances and made periodic distributions to his son. I suggested setting up a CGA or Charitable Remainder Trust now for the son, but Cliff insisted that he wanted to manage his money outright for as long as possible. We agreed, however, that a testamentary CGA for his son would meet his desires. I provided sample language, and Cliff’s lawyer modified his estate plan to include a $2 million testamentary CGA.

From a $10,000 inquiry, we received $3.5 million in gifts because we took the time to show Cliff how we could help him take care of his family.”

The other major demotivator discovered by The George Washington University is:

The mistaken belief that bequests involve very large financial commitments from those who are very wealthy.

Three problems arise from this mistaken belief. First, prospects believe that bequest giving is simply not for them, but rather the “wealthy”—many who are truly wealthy do not perceive themselves as such and, instead, think of themselves as merely “comfortable.” Among older Americans with assets of $3 million or more, 40 percent do not consider themselves “rich,” according to a US Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management survey report.

Second, while some prospects might be willing to give through a bequest, they might not actually do so because they feel their gift would be too insignificant to matter.

Third, some prospects expressed embarrassment over the notion of giving a modest bequest gift while the perceived norm is much larger. Consider what one focus group participant said:

When you see bequests given to universities they are substantial. You really feel embarrassed that you don’t have that money.”

These findings were similar to what was discovered by the organizers of the Remember a Charity campaign in the United Kingdom. There, many prospects either did not know what the term “legacy” means or thought it something that only wealthy people and celebrities do.

To overcome this demotivator, organizations must speak the prospect’s language. In the UK campaign, prospects are not asked to make a “bequest commitment” or “leave a legacy.” Instead, they are simply asked to remember a charity in their will.

By using less formal language and by educating prospects about the importance of all planned gifts, organizations can help prospects feel more comfortable with the idea of gift planning and recognize its appropriateness for them.

To promote the point that bequest giving is for everyone, the Arizona State University School of Nursing and Health Innovation did an article in its alumni magazine that focused on an average nurse, an alumna who made a generous but not particularly dramatic bequest commitment. The message was a simple one: All bequest gifts are greatly appreciated, and people just like you are making such gifts.

To inspire more people to make major and planned gifts to your organization, observe these five rules:

1. Avoid taking polarizing positions that have little or nothing to do with your core mission.

2. Act in a donor-centered rather than organization-centric way in all things.

3. Do not run afoul of the factors that motivate supporters.

4. Show donors how giving can benefit their loved ones.

5. Stay away from high-brow words like “bequest” and “legacy.” Instead, use simple words to convey the same message in a way that makes it more relevant to more people.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

16 Responses to “Two Major Factors that Demotivate Donors”

  1. Michael,

    Excellent points! Organizations do need to stay within their mission and not take stands on things that have nothing to do with what they are about. Komen is another example that comes to mind. I remember when I served on a Board for a social service organization. The ED wanted the Board to take a public stand against another organization that it had nothing to do with. I took the stand that it was not our place to meddle with another organization.

    They also need to always put the donors and their needs first when working with any giving program. Organizations need to respect all donors, regardless of the level of their giving. They need to appreciate what the donors give, whether it is a widow’s few pennies or the businessman’s millions.

    Another thing gift programs need to avoid, besides the high brow vocabulary, is nonprofit speak and acronyms. Most donors do not fully understand nonprofit speak, so communicating to them in clear simple language will help them understand the importance of their support, and it will help them make the decision to make that gift, regardless of the level.

    • Richard, thank you for your comments. Focus and straight talk are vitally important to a successful development program. If your grandmother wouldn’t understand what you’re saying, you’re not speaking plainly enough. When a donor thinks you’re being clever (not in a good way), she’ll probably think you’ve got something to hide. Using simple language and being honest will earn you trust. And, as development professionals, the only way we can achieve our goals is by maintaining the trust of the public.

  2. This was a tremendously helpful post, and echoed much of what I heard from Richard Radcliffe at a conference last week… thank you! Legacy giving is an emerging area of focus for me, so I appreciate these thought-provoking posts into donor motivation.

  3. For families with taxable estates who say that family comes first, I don’t disagree. Yet I tell them there are three choices as to where their estate can go: (1) family; (2) government, and (3) philanthropy. The kicker? They have to choose two.

    To address the concerns of those who feel they must be a “Rockefeller” to make a bequest, I let them know of a study conducted years ago by the YMCA. In that study, they found that for every 50 bequests they generated $1 million on average (it’s probably much higher by now). The moral: bequests add up. They don’t have to be $1 million each.

    • Claire, thank you for sharing your insights. There’s something I find particularly interesting about the choice between money going to government (taxes) v. nonprofits (philanthropy). Many people who would never consider themselves “conservatives” nevertheless do not trust government to spend money as efficiently and effectively as nonprofit organizations. The distrust of government is not a uniquely American phenomenon. For example, a recent focus group study in the UK revealed a major motivator for planned giving is distrust of government. As a practical matter, this means that nonprofits need to stress to donors that they are both efficient and effective, assuming that’s the case.

  4. As I say, Michael, donors are the drivers. How often we forget that and place our own priorities above theirs.

    • Larry, thank you for commenting. Day-to-day pressure to achieve goals often leads to development professionals focusing on their own priorities. It’s human nature. That’s why it’s so important for us all to keep reminding others, as well as ourselves, of the importance of being donor-centered.

  5. I think this is a great post! In a time when we are seeing a huge amount of donor fatigue these drivers need to be properly addressed in every organization.

    • Michelle, thank you for your comment. These are difficult times for our economy, our donors, and the development community. However, nonprofit organizations can still successfully raise money by paying extra attention to what motivates and demotivates donors and prospective donors.

  6. Great post, and it also has much applicability to why major donors (in giving societies) don’t renew…thanks Michael!

    • Armen, thank you for your kind comment and insight. You’re right. The demotivators not only impact new-gift decision making, they also impact gift renewal or, in the case of planned giving, maintenance of a gift commitment. For example, while donors tend not to revoke bequest commitments, when they do it is often due to the birth of a grandchild. Family comes first.

  7. Hi Michael. My thoughts echo the comments above and also take me in a slightly different direction. I think it’s worth considering that when someone puts a charity in their Will, the charity has become in many ways “part of the family”. It’s sobering to think of what an honour that really is. So I always think they deserve to be treated like family — and we have to remember to behave like family (in a good way).

    • Jill, thank you for taking the time to comment. You suggested that we should treat major and planned gift donors like family, “in a good way.” I had to smile at that. When I think of how badly many families treat one another, I shudder to think of a donor being treated that way. So, I’m glad you added that tag. 🙂


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