Reasons People Give

Reasons People Give


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Among the notable passings in 2018 was one Jerold (Jerry) Panas. Jerry’s was one of the most recognizable names in fundraising. Author of twenty books on fundraising, Panas was also a regular contributor to blogs and magazines about the topic. His consulting firm reported that he died peacefully on July 14 of this year.

I met him once, about 1995. I had found a major gift development seminar in Chicago and had brought my Board Chair and Executive Director down with me. We were preparing for a capital campaign. Jerry talked with his hands, and his emotional, story-telling style was a perfect counterpoint to Bill Sturtevant’s practical, nuts-and-bolts, this-is-how-you-do-it-step-by-step teaching style.

In the early 1980’s, Panas interviewed twenty some philanthropists, each of whom had made a million-dollar gift. He wanted to learn how they had come to make their decisions to give. As one might expect, each was different in some important ways. It’s the reason so much of major gift fundraising is related to listening.

But, maybe even more significantly, each was also the same in some important ways. Each of the donors was fundamentally supportive of the organization’s mission. The organization was doing something that they wanted to see done. The programs and projects were expressions of the donor’s values and beliefs about the world.

And they believed in the organization – the Board members and staff. The programmatic track record. The financials. That the organization was one that could actually get the job done.

Panas wrote a book about his conversations with these donors. The book is called Mega Gifts – Who Gives Them, Who Gets Them. It was originally published in 1984 and quickly became the most important book ever written about major gift fundraising. He updated it and published a second edition in 2005, which is still in print.

If you are tasked with raising money in any serious way, I commend the book to you.


So it was against that backdrop that I read MarketSmart’s Halloween blog post, Here’s What Supporters “Buy” When They Donate to Charity, by Greg Warner.

Warner’s brief post starts with the premise that “buying and donating are the same.” He then lists 14 things that donors “buy” when they give money to a charity:

  • A chance to be moved by someone’s story in an emotional way
  • An opportunity to feel “I’m not powerless” in the face of need
  • Empowerment to feel that I’m changing someone’s life
  • A sense of closeness to a community or group
  • A possible tax deduction
  • A way to memorialize someone
  • A way to continue my family tradition since I was raised to give to charity
  • A chance to be “hip” by supporting a charity
  • A way to feel connected to other people
  • A chance to be the “hero”
  • An opportunity to leave a legacy that perpetuates me, my ideals or my cause
  • An opportunity to give something back to others
  • A way to follow my religion
  • A chance to be seen as a leader/role model


OK, my first reaction was to cringe. He is trivializing the philanthropic experience! Buying is the same as donating? No, it’s not! And I’ve made that case several times on this blog:

The Trouble with Transactional Giving

Transactional Donors Are Not Really Donors – Yet


But if you take a look at Warner’s list, it makes a deeper point – in fact, the same point that Panas made more than 30 years ago.

Donors give for their own reasons. They give because THEY want to. They give because of how they see themselves, how they want to see themselves, and in some cases, how they wish to be seen by others in their own social geography. They respond to their own emotional direction, more so than to yours.

Warner’s list talks about why donors might give at all. Panas’ book talks about why they give big gifts to specific charities and institutions.

I still don’t like the way Warner equates buying and giving, but I understand and appreciate the larger point. Here’s the way another blogger, Jeff Brooks, puts it:

Effective fundraising is not about persuading people your organization is great and the cause is important. It’s about showing donors how your organization and cause are a good channel for their needs. That’s why fundraising isn’t about educating people but connecting with people.


This is the time of the year when we start thinking about fundraising plans for next year. What will you be doing next year to connect with people? To listen more and educate less? To help prospects see your organization as one that can help them achieve their goals?

Hint: Get them out onto the land and create opportunities for them to spend quality time with Board and staff leadership.


Cheers, and have a good week!




PS: A nice tribute to Jerry Panas from Michael Rosen can be found here: Jerold Panas (1928-2018), He Will Be Missed.


Photo by CloudVisual courtesy of


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  • Gregory Warner
    Posted at 06:52h, 27 November

    David, thank you so much for referencing my blog post. Sorry to make you cringe! 🙂

    • David Allen
      Posted at 07:18h, 27 November

      It was a good post, Greg. Cringing or not, I appreciate thoughtful posts that make us think and bring us all back to core concepts in fundraising.

  • Zachshefska
    Posted at 06:41h, 27 November

    David, I reference Mega Gifts nearly everyday when I talk to prospective clients. I constantly refer them to the book and am surprised that more of the people I talk to haven’t read it already. As for Greg’s blog post, you and I feel similarly about his message. Thanks for another thoughtful post this morning.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 07:16h, 27 November

      Zach – Thanks for the comment. I will be starting a campaign in a month or so to raise money for an Urban Ecology Center in Texas. I will be buying copies of Mega Gifts for each of the Campaign Committee members when they agree to serve. I re-read parts of it when preparing for this morning’s post. It is just as relevant and important now as it was when it was first published in 1984.