In Their Own Words: What Matters Most to Big Donors
Wealthy donors have a lot to say about fundraising — what gets their attention, and what turns them off.
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Wealthy donors have a lot to say about fundraising — what gets their attention and what turns them off. Fundraisers who pay close attention will find plenty of nuggets of advice that apply to most donors — and may help close more big gifts.
Over the years, the Chronicle has talked with hundreds of major donors about what motivates them to give. Following is a collection of some the best advice we’ve heard.
Treat Donors Like Partners
David and Jennifer Risher
Where they made their money: David and Jennifer Risher were Microsoft employees whose stock options made them wealthy. David also was an executive at Amazon, and Jennifer is an author.
Where they give: Education in underserved places, racial-justice groups, climate and environmental efforts, and reproductive health care
Treat donors as partners in what you’re trying to accomplish, not as an ATM, says Jennifer Risher. “When fundraisers approach donors with the idea that they’re going to help the donor do what the donor wants to do, that’s what works,” she says.
And keep your expectations in check, even when dealing with the wealthiest donors. If you ask a donor for $100,000 and get $10,000 instead, be appreciative and keep the relationship going, Jennifer says. “It is key for fundraisers not to anchor their thinking in the net worth of a person but to anchor their thinking in what the donor has given in the past and then move that relationship forward,” she says. “Over the course of two, three, four, five years, that donation could become 10 times the amount of that first gift.”
Also focus on the work of your nonprofit, not the challenges of fundraising. David Risher recalled one nonprofit leader who was great at explaining the challenges of finding support but struggled to explain the basics of what the charity was doing to help people. “He was making it so complicated and getting in his own way, and we’re like, ‘Dude, simplify,’” he says. “Get to the point so we can say yes or no.”
Invite Donors Into Your World
George and Carol Bauer
Where they made their money: George was an IBM executive and founded a private investment firm.
Where they give: Health care, education, housing
The Bauers say many donors want to see firsthand the programs fundraisers are asking them to support. Show them around. When the time comes to make the ask, be sure a gift proposal or presentation includes clear, logical information about the programs you want the donor to support.
Encourage donors to get involved as volunteers or board members. Engaged donors are more likely to give.
Also, the Bauers don’t want knickknacks, stationery, stickers, or totes. They want to know their money is being put to good use.
Mark and Brenda Moore
Where they made their money: Mark built a fortune through his involvement with two tech companies.
Where they give: Health care and the National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Moores say too many fundraisers speak in broad terms about the impact of a gift. Drill down to a deeper level, they say. Be specific about what a big gift will accomplish. For example, their giving to a local hospital was spurred in large part by an informational packet that outlined specific things their donation would accomplish.
Brenda Moore also wanted to know that their gift would benefit all patients, not just a select few. She says it was important to them that the hospital staff had asked patients what they needed.
Connect With Donors’ Personal Experiences
April and Andrew Bosworth
Where they made their money: Andrew is a Facebook executive.
Where they give: Education, environmental preservation, Covid relief, and women’s rights
Andrew Bosworth developed what would become Facebook’s News Feed and later helped create the social-media giant’s Messenger app and its Groups platform. But you’d be wrong to assume that his giving is all about technology.
Bosworth grew up in a farming family whose roots stretch back 125 years, and the National 4-H Council, a youth-development nonprofit known for its agricultural training, is among his favored causes.
He likes charities with leaders who possess a strong and clear vision that is solely focused on the nonprofit’s mission. He also likes to give to nonprofits he can help in ways in addition to writing a check.
Bosworth says he is put off by nonprofit leaders and major-gift officers who try to persuade him to give by telling him the cause or charity is popular with his peers, and he’s no fan of galas.
“I fully respect that nonprofits have to spend money to raise money; I have no problem with that,” Bosworth says. “But I worry about these ones that seem to raise enough money just to put on the next [fundraiser]. When a charity becomes more about the spectacle of charity as opposed to the work of the charity, that’s certainly a turn-off for me.”
Focus on Leadership
Anne Welsh McNulty
Where she made her money: She has been an executive at Goldman Sachs Group and other finance companies.
Where she gives: Leadership development, especially for women
Like the Bosworths, personal experience is a big driver in McNulty’s giving, and she tends to focus on leaders who bring a powerful sense of purpose to their work.
McNulty endured numerous indignities from sexist male colleagues as she rose through the ranks of the financial industry, eventually starting her own investment-management shop and becoming a managing director at Goldman Sachs Group. That experience spurred her to devote millions to gender research and causes that advance women and equity.
She puts a big emphasis on strong leadership when making her giving decisions because, she says, good leaders have continued influence even after the gift is spent. That creates a ripple effect that gives her philanthropy greater impact and reach over time, McNulty says.
Seek Solutions to Big Problems
Where he made his money: He is a former Facebook president and the co-founder of Napster.
Where he gives: Civic engagement, global public health, and life sciences
Parker is most interested in giving to causes he believes have definable objectives that can be attained.
“My guiding principle of all of my engagement is: I try to only focus on the problems where I have some insight or a set of relationships or capabilities where I can actually do something about it and see a path to zero,” he said.
Pay Attention to the Data
Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna
Where they made their money: Moskovitz was a Facebook cofounder.
Where they give: Criminal justice, assessing risks from artificial intelligence, animal welfare, the environment, and immigration
Some donors such as Moskovitz and Tuna, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, assess every grant-making opportunity on three criteria: How many people are affected by a specific problem and by how much? How much money is already going to the cause from other grant makers, and what are the odds of actually making a difference?
“We have the opportunity to significantly improve millions of lives if, and only if, we do this work exceptionally well,” says Tuna. “That is what really motivates me.”
Handle Rejection Graciously
Bruce and Suzie Kovner
Where they made their money: Bruce founded Caxton Associates, a hedge fund.
Where they give: Music education, museums, think tanks, education
Suzie Kovner is a former fundraiser so she understands how unpleasant it is to hear donors to say no. But the better you take it, she says, the more luck you’ll have approaching the same person again. “The next time I see you, I won’t feel awkward, and I’m more apt to reconsider a gift if you’re a good sport about it,” she says.