Preparing to give a workshop or speech often includes exploring new themes or re-visiting some from past work. But background work for an upcoming trip to Israel means all of the above. Taking best advantage of all those airline miles means I’ll be making several presentations, covering both the basics and some specialty topics as well.

The centerpiece of the trip is a conference sponsored by Sheatufim: The Israel Center on Civil Society on advancing philanthropy in that country. Most of the emphasis will be on favorable public policy (as evidenced by keynote speakers like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. What kind of favorable climate and policy (particularly tax policy) is necessary to promote a healthy private philanthropic sector? But squeezed between those powerhouse presentations, the conference organizers want to focus a session on what it is – other than public policy – that motivates donors to give. That charge has motivated me to take a look back on what inspires giving.

Instinct or Instruction

Sustained giving, I believe, is the result of deeply held values – what we do, we do out of a sense of what is most important to us. It’s harder to discern how much of that sense is innate and how much is learned behavior. Someone who has no experience with giving and volunteering early in life can grow to be extraordinarily generous. Yet I have spoken with enough donors to be sure that much of what we dedicate ourselves to is a reflection of what we have been taught. We may be taught be example, traditions, or by mentors. We may also be taught by the lack of example – our values may be the result of that which we missed in life.

Chance or Circumstances

Chance often prompts the one-time gift but it rarely sustains the choice to organize one’s giving (through a fund or foundation, for example) or to give over a long period of time. “I gave because someone asked me” is not an atypical response to a surprising significant gift. But the decision to organize giving and make it a life commitment requires more than right time/right place serendipity. It usually is the result of special circumstances – an “intervention,” if you will.

Your financial or legal advisor might tell you that it is financially advantageous to set up a giving structure and offer you the information you need to get started. The organizations and institutions that are important to you – whether they are religious, educational, cultural, or civic-based – are likely to have given you a lot of opportunities to be generous and even may have given you your first opportunity to organize that giving.

My anecdotal experience is based on conversations and interviews, but also has a remarkable similarity to research conducted at the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. Having analyzed the factors at play in giving decisions, principal researchers Paul Schervish and John Havens have determined that the primary motivators for giving include:

  • Communities of Participation, the networks of formal and informal relationships to which people are associated;
  • Frameworks of Consciousness, the ways of thinking and feeling that are rooted deeply enough in one’s awareness to induce a commitment to a cause (this includes religion, ideology, etc.);
  • Direct Requests made to individuals for contributions of time and money;
  • Models and Experiences from one’s youth that animate adult philanthropy; and
  • Discretionary Resources.

According to Schervish and Havens, the most influential of these is communities of participation. We give when and because we identify in some way with the recipient. Identification with the fate of others is the primary variable and can explain giving across the economic spectrum.

Motivating New Giving

If donors are to be encouraged to give more and potential donors encouraged to participate, if we are to see both greater giving and greater enthusiasm for giving – it can’t be left to chance or serendipity. Those most likely to influence the future of giving are those who already value the opportunity to give and the results that can be achieved. It will happen because these committed donors deliberately choose to share their own satisfaction and get involved in extending the invitation to others. They become active – in sharing the history of their giving experience, spotlighting the work of their grantees, raising public awareness of community needs, advocating for policy and attitudes that favor private initiative for the public good, and making sure their “communities of participation” – their families, friends, and colleagues – are aware of their enthusiasm.

Several years ago, I conducted a fairly informal interview study of why donors were interested in giving and what they wanted to accomplish. Two answers were given more than all others combined: I want to give back and I want to make a difference. In sharing that information, I realized readers might be frustrated by the vagueness of the responses. I had to communicate the passion and dedication that had prompted those answers. Donors had a sense of responsibility to give back because others had given to them. Further, they wanted to know those gifts could make a difference. Giving back and making a difference. Gratitude and optimism. Pretty terrific motivations to build on. And a wonderful way to invite others to be part of this special community.

Have a wonderful summer!


Virginia M. Esposito
President, National Center for Family Philanthropy