James C. Murphy, Ph.D. CFRE

Strategic Partner

About James

Melinda Gates’ new book, The Moment of Lift, is out, and it’s difficult to turn on a television or pick up a newspaper without running across an interview with her. Listening to her discuss her philanthropy, I am struck by two things: She has absolute clarity of message when she speaks about her philanthropic work, and she is giving us invaluable insights into how donors think about their contributions.

Her clarity is no doubt enhanced by access to some fine publicity handlers, but the messages she delivers are clearly hers: She owns her beliefs. In articulating her philanthropic strategies she is speaking for herself and for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she serves as co-chair and founder.

Whatever one thinks of the work of the Gates Foundation, for those of us seeking to understand donor motivation Melinda Gates is a readily available case study. She is quoted as saying, “I’m wholehearted about whatever I do.” This comes through in her passionate approach to philanthropy. Based on research Advancement Resources has conducted on donor motivation and behavior, we know that passion drives much meaningful philanthropy. And passionate philanthropy helps make our lives rich and fulfilling. Melinda Gates provides a great example of this.

We hear donors say time and again that being actively involved in supporting important work and making a difference for others brings a sense of fulfillment and well-being. We all know the feeling when we make a contribution, large or small. In Maslow’s terms, the act of giving is a step toward self-actualization, meeting our highest human needs, and is part of leading a balanced life.

For those on the other side of the giving equation, however, fundraising can be stressful. Many academic, medical, and charitable leaders engage in fundraising as part of their remit. The act of engaging and soliciting a donor can be a challenge. How, then, can asking for money provide the same sense of self-fulfillment as giving away money?

Ideas42, an applied behavioral research firm, wrote in their recent report, Best of Intentions, on charitable giving, “…helping donors be more deliberate with their giving can make their philanthropy more rewarding.” Donors, particularly high-net-worth individuals, are presented with many opportunities to contribute. Understanding what truly motivates passion-based contributions is the key to a win-win. When you engage with a donor, you are part of a process to bring the donor into your work and your own passions. Making that connection is exciting and rewarding—for the donor and for the fundraiser alike.

Successful major gift fundraising takes place when a donor’s passion connects with your work. Donor passion is often based on some life experience, positive or negative, and the attendant desire to make a difference for others. Your development officer will have had at least one “discovery” meeting that included a discussion of what the donor is passionate about. Your job, then, becomes that of facilitating further connection and dialogue around the excitement of that work. You know the work is important and worthwhile; you now have a donor who potentially shares that passion with you. As the funding and the work advance, the donor can become not just a partner in that work, but a passionate advocate for the project.

Looking for that connection between a donor’s life experience and his or her philanthropy is exciting. In our training we guide participants in the art of asking the right questions and listening closely to the donor’s story. As you prepare for donor meetings, take time to envision the discussion and ask the donor what in their life experience might make your project meaningful for them. Listen actively to their story. Invite them to explore with you the impact of your work. You’ll discover that every donor has a philanthropic passion that connects with their own experience.

When you view your role as facilitating the expression of a donor’s passion, great satisfaction can come from the work of development. By offering others a path to a rewarding investment, you’ve enhanced your own sense of well-being and reduced the stress of fundraising. You’ve also helped ignite a partnership that can have deep and lasting impact on your life as well as the donor’s.

How can you more effectively work with your development partner to connect your institution to donors’ philanthropic passions? Attend a public offering of Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders to enhance your fundraising skills—and your sense of well-being.

Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders