Does the size of a philanthropic gift determine its meaningfulness to the donor?
As part of our book project The Philanthropic Mind my writing partner and I recently conducted one of our interviews with Canada’s top philanthropists. In it a donor told us that his first meaningful gift and the one that may have given him the most pleasure was $200 to the university of which he was an alumnus. Not surprising. But what he told us about the rest of his giving history to the institution deserves attention. His most recent gift is quite significant – in the mid seven figures. However, he can recall little detail and nothing notable about all the gifts between the $200 gift thirty years ago and the multi-million dollar gift most recently.
Listen to his words in describing that first gift. “A couple of hundred bucks felt significant at the time. I was only making about $30,000 a year. It was my alma matter and I had a good time there and obviously universities need money. It wasn’t necessarily meaningful financially but it was meaningful spiritually.”
This is what he had to say about the intervening gifts. “Had I committed to other [gifts] before that of lesser amounts? Probably, but I don’t even remember any more. I might have agreed to a gift of $50,000, which at the time seemed significant but today I don’t even remember making the gift. I guess there had to be other gifts that preceded it [the multi-million dollar gift] because you just don’t one day donate that much money.”
What’s going on here? This is an intelligent and very successful businessman. Is it possible that he has forgotten the many intervening gifts? I don’t believe so but it appears he has forgotten their significance.
The reality is that he has been very generous to his alma mater. So what was lost by the forgotten significance? Who knows for sure. Perhaps he would have given more. Perhaps he would have been a stronger advocate for the institution, helping to solicit other gifts. Perhaps if he had spoken as “spiritually” about all his gifts, more people would have been motivated to give.
The message to today’s fundraisers and marketers is to try and make every gift as meaningful as that first $200. This donor had a strong sense of affinity, felt deep responsibility, perceived the need and was sure his gift was going to accomplish something. And he felt great – spiritual – for making it. What if every prospective donor felt that his gift could make that kind of difference – individually and organizationally? What if every supporter could feel that way every time she made a gift?
The lessons learned from listening to the top tier of philanthropists are profound. The number of zeroes in a gift amount won’t always make it more memorable to the donor. There are other, more significant considerations. It seems clear that when it comes to meaningful philanthropy – size doesn’t always matter.