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Sarah Bluvas

Bolz Collegium 2016: Thoughts on Donor Motivation and Cultivating a Culture of Giving

by Sarah Bluvas Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Last month the Bolz Center hosted Bolz Center Collegium 2016, a one-day symposium that explores topics and trends in and outside of the arts and nonprofit sectors. As an arts/nonprofit professional who has no formal training in development and fundraising (something I hope to correct during my time here at the Bolz Center), I was particularly interested in attending Collegium 2016, which focused on the psychology of philanthropy and donor motivation. Or, to put it plainly, how can organizations better understand why donors give to charitable causes, and can we use that information to better predict or influence a donor’s likelihood of giving to our particular cause?

Researchers have long tried to crack the code of donor motivation, and with good reason: as the pool of financial support for nonprofit organizations dwindles, competition for donor attention has increased and the need for more innovative and targeted fundraising techniques has never been more important to these institutions.   

One of those prominent researchers was keynote speaker (and Bolz Center alumnus) Jennifer Wiggins Johnson, who kicked our day off by briefly exploring a few historical approaches to studying donor motivations. She then delved into her own research on the topic, which has included studies of how incentives influence donor behavior as well as a pilot study looking at the effect that language has on giving motivation. (For those of you familiar with the “pay what you want” model, try asking your patrons to “pay what it’s worth;” you might see a better return!)

We also heard from a panel of experienced development professionals who emphasized the need to focus on donor values (as opposed to demographics) and how those values align with your specific organization or projects in order to target your fundraising (a “market segmentation” approach that Jan Heide would be proud of). Dean François Ortalo-Magné echoed this sentiment by challenging participants to rethink how their organizations “group” donors as he facilitated a conversation about the intersection of giving to the Wisconsin School of Business and the arts to close the afternoon.

While many of the discussions throughout the day centered on how individual organizations can apply understanding of donor motivation to their own development practices, one question I keep coming back to (both in my own experiences and during Collegium 2016) focuses on the actual act of giving itself. Could organizations ultimately use the same understanding of donor behavior to collectively cultivate an overall culture of giving?

Individual motivations and behaviors may vary, but (at the risk of alienating my friends in fundraising) the overarching challenges facing donor development are not necessarily unique from organization to organization. Rather, issues in fundraising (and, for that matter, audience development, education & outreach and more) stem from the same universal problem: as constituent needs and desires evolve, how can we continue to build meaningful relationships and encourage long-lasting support of and engagement with our institutions? Instead of focusing solely on their own donor needs could organizations also work together to think more holistically about the needs of their entire sectors?

Of course, arts and nonprofit administrators already have enough on their plates (!!), but I think Wiggins Johnson’s and others’ research provides a key starting point to also explore how to mobilize new generations of donors in general, regardless of a specific cause. Instead of competing for limited resources, organizations have a prime opportunity to think about the “bigger picture” of strengthening and sustaining their sectors as a whole. Understanding why donors donate is a critical piece of the puzzle, and, by collaborating with each other to cultivate a universal culture of giving, we may be able to solve it.