Inside the Minds of Donors (Part II): Personal Perspective or Would You Walk 100 km For a Cause?

Following up on the interesting blog from last week, here is another, more personal view.

It was always more or less clear to me why a government would want to give to a common cause – their motivation is often connected to a policy goal; it can be more economical providing a service directly; or it can have a direct political benefit to those in power. Or why a corporation should do it – good practice of corporate-social responsibility or engaging in corporate philanthropy bring positive image and have a positive impact on the brand, sales, etc. I even get why a celebrity has to give – they are often subject of scrutiny for their wealth and lifestyle and giving can take the edge off of that.  Super rational, right? Easy to understand whatever we thought of these motives. 

But why does an average citizen from an average family with an average pay struggling to pay off a 25 year mortgage or put children through university give. Especially as there is no immediate and clear rational payback – no material benefit, no plaque or a school with a name, and only marginal savings through tax incentives (even that is not available in all countries!). And people still give! Significant amounts of money in the West ($211.77 billion in 2010 in US alone) and, as the last week’s blog showed, even in this region, individuals give more every year.

You could ask why it matters – it is good that they give, so why waste time on trying to understand individual people’s motivations… I believe it does matter. I believe that individual donors, especially those that donate small amounts on a regular basis are a key to independent civic action in our region in future. To encourage that kind of a donor, we need to understand what motivates them into giving.

Like a good student, I read a number of academic articles; even economic articles analyzing donor behavior and motivations. The organization I worked for conducted studies, did focus groups, etc. Most of the research was done in North America where people give a lot. I believe human behavior is not that different in this region and most of their findings could be applied here as well. And I found that there was no magic there. While there were a couple of different classifications, they overlaped and I thought I can group the motivation for giving into:

  • Deeply personal motivation – where we give because someone close to us has suffered from something and we identify with the cause at a very personal level. Example would be committing to giving to a charity that deals with cancer research if a close family member had suffered from cancer. Giving to women’s shelter because your sister suffered family violence. This motivation is deeply personal and usually inspires people to become life-long donor to a cause. Often small financial donations or volunteering time, but deeply committed and lasting support.  
  • Shock effect – mass disaster situations – purely human reflex at seeing a “higher power” event (like earthquake of tsunami) affect large number of people. A sense of solidarity that prompts people to give on an impulse immediately following major humanitarian crises. This kind of giving is also personal but on a very different level – “this could be me” or “god, I aren’t I lucky” feeling. This kind of giving is more erratic, often one off with motivation disappearing as the images of those affected disappear from our TV or computer screens. But because these disasters are massive they have a potential to raise huge sums of money, goods or people’s time.
  • Shock effect – individual disaster situations – one-on-one shock effect – also very humanitarian in nature, but aimed at helping that one individual whose misfortune we witnessed directly and felt prompted to give. The case of a boy in Serbia who’s both parents recently committed suicide comes to mind. Cases like this make us feel an almost personal connection to an individual that we really don’t know. And it does not matter if humanitarian in us gets awakened because of our religious belief, or because of our sense of obligation for another human being, or because we believe those individuals have rights and we have responsibilities to them – in its essence, the last two are gut reactions to something.
  • Economic incentive or belief that jointly more can be achieved – this is a very rational motive for giving. Examples of these are tax incentives, matching grants schemes, local schemes of pulling the resources together around a concrete thing (fence around the school yard). It involves some kind of calculation and/or cost analysis. I believe this kind of motivation is less present as primary motivation and more often it is an additional incentive. For example, if I am already personally motivated to give to a child protection charity, I will likely give more because there are tax incentives (after all, that money will otherwise go to taxes), but I will not necessarily be prompted to give just because there are tax incentives.
  • Political motivation – this kind of motivation is often overlooked but significant enough to raise huge amounts of money to political parties, movements and charities alike in the West. The key ingredient here is belief that change is necessary and can be achieved. This support is regular, often significant in size and by people with higher incomes who also engage otherwise in the same political cause – they volunteer, champion, act, etc. The people who donate for political reasons usually do their research and specifically target organization that they believe shares their political agenda. They also follow up looking for results and accountability.       

Interestingly, I did not find that I personally, but also many of my friends and family (hastily interviewed in a super non-scientific evening polling), could put my motivation squarely in one or even two categories. Most of us have given for each of the reasons listed above. I have given to diabetes fighting charity because my father had diabetes; to immigrant and refugees supporting organizations because I lived an experience of being a refugee and an immigrant. I have given to humanitarian organizations following major disasters and volunteered for more than 10 years. Towards the end of the tax year I would make additional donations to those charities I already supported because there was that additional tax incentive, or because there was a government matching program. And I continue to support an organization whose political goal is reduction of poverty globally through fight for women’s rights.

Finally, because I felt strongly enough about a political cause but there was a limit to amount of money I could donate, I walked 100 km in 40 hours… I don’t exercise and am not very fit. I barely survived, but I had an unparalleled feeling of accomplishment because I not only walked such a long distance and talked about women’s rights to everyone who would listen, but also managed to raise $3,000 for the cause.

That feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction after contributing to something we believe worthwhile, I would say, is another huge motive… So, instead of conclusion, I would rather issue a challenge – would you please write a sentence or two about your motive(s) for giving. What brings out a philanthropist in you?  

Mia Vukojevic is Executive Director of Balkan Community Initiatives Fund (BCIF). Mia lived in Canada for 12 years working in international development. More on BCIF you can find on


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Mia Vukojevic