What Do Donors Want Anyway?

Strategic Philanthropy
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

That seemed to be the question behind grants recently made by the Gates Foundation to two consulting firms for developing tools and sharing best practices that will help donors make better investment decisions and, ultimately, encourage more philanthropy.

While many were pleased over the powerful show of support for increasing philanthropy, the grants also raised questions about

 whether donors want more information about nonprofits and, if so, what kind?  And if they have it, will it change their minds about what they support?  

After all, there's no shortage of this kind of information floating around in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector—not to mention the business, sociology, psychology, and social work fields—on everything from donor motivation to assessing effective philanthropy.  And there’s been significant investment in the collection and analysis of data about nonprofits to help improve public accountability and, ultimately, help encourage more informed philanthropic giving. 

But has all that data helped to meet those goals?  And perhaps more importantly, do donors even want all this information? 

In an article by Bill Deitel and myself that appears at The Nonprofit Quarterly (and will be featured in the upcoming Fall issue), we take a closer look at that question and find that, while we wholly support more rigorous and evidence-based practice, we also worry that attention to this side of the philanthropic equation has skewed to the point where the other side—one that’s more amorphous and difficult to measure—is being overlooked:  the values, ethics, and personal beliefs of donors, all of which play a key role in the decisions they make about giving. 

In recent years, there’s been a tendency among some in the philanthropic field to dismiss these factors as “the soft side” of philanthropy and, as such, not as worthy of attention as the things that we can get our arms around.  We suggest this to be a false distinction and that both are part of the complex duality that goes into every philanthropic decision.  As TPI's founder Peter Karoff has continually argued, ignoring the human and, yes, more subjective, elements of philanthropy reduces the latter to nothing more than cost-benefit analysis, rather than a civic virtue, a deeply-held conviction, or something that just makes us happy.

As efforts begin to delve deeper into the mysteries of “what makes donors tick” (and give), we suggest that there be equal attention paid to both of these elements of philanthropic practice and, especially, where each fits within the larger goal of encouraging more philanthropy among a more diverse group of donors.  Perhaps the time has come to find a balance in assessing what donors need and want—and that that balance falls somewhere between data and desire.  

What do you think?  Read the entire article here.