Donor Psychology

Major Donor Psychology:

The Traits You Need to Pay Attention To

Griffin Bohm
April 12, 2024
5 min read
Full name
11 Jan 2022
5 min read

One thing you can say about every donor - they are a person.

And as people, donors act with the same psychological patterns as anyone else.

In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the psychological traits of major donors, their motivations, the expected value they seek from their donations, and the different ways to appeal to their interests.

By understanding these factors, nonprofits and fundraisers can develop strategies to maximize their fundraising efforts and make a lasting impact on the causes they support.

This guide is divided into two primary sections: traits and motivations. That is, what are the traits that typify major donors and distinguish them from the rest, and what are the motivations at play that lead them to donate in the first place.

Why Does Fundraising Psychology Matter?

Because the foundation of major donor fundraising is built upon relationships, major donors require an even deeper understanding of fundraising psychology compared to general fundraising efforts.

Unique Motivations: Major donors often have complex reasons for giving beyond just helping a cause. Fundraising psychology helps you identify these deeper motivations. They might be driven by a desire for social impact, leaving a legacy, or gaining recognition for their generosity.  Tailoring your approach to their specific desires is crucial for securing larger donations.

Building Relationships: Major gifts are often rooted in strong relationships. Understanding donor psychology helps you build trust and rapport with these individuals.

Strategic Stewardship: Psychology helps you cultivate long-term relationships with major donors. This involves keeping them informed about the impact of their contributions and showcasing how their gift aligns with their values. Feeling a sense of connection and seeing their contribution make a difference is essential for securing repeat major gifts.empathy

Major donor volunteering

An Overview of Major Donor Traits

While all major donors are different, here are traits that we often see among major donors.

High Levels of Empathy

Major donors often possess heightened levels of empathy, which enables them to connect more deeply with the challenges faced by others. They can envision themselves in the shoes of those who need support and genuinely feel for their struggles.

This heightened empathy can drive them to make significant contributions to help alleviate suffering and improve the lives of others.

Action Item: Donors who are particularly empathetic will resonate with stories and person-to-person interactions more than others.

A Strong Sense of Social Responsibility

Major donors often feel a profound sense of responsibility to give back to society, especially if they have experienced success or accumulated wealth. This sense of social responsibility compels them to use their resources to create positive change in the world.

Action Item: Showcasing the alignment between the organization's goals and the donor's values emphasizes the collective impact that can be achieved through their support.

Long-Term Viewpoint

Unlike annual fund donors, major donors tend to demonstrate long-term commitment to the causes they support. They are more likely to stay engaged with an organization over time, providing sustained support and actively following its progress. These donors also may have their own specific philanthropic goals that the organization can help fulfill.

Action Item: To cultivate long-term commitment, fundraisers should update donors on the organization's achievements and share future plans especially if they align with the donor’s own interest areas.

A Desire For Personal Involvement and Engagement

Major donors often seek personal involvement and engagement with the causes they support. They want to be more than just a financial contributor; they want to be a part of the organization's mission and impact.

Action Item: To cater to this desire, fundraisers can offer opportunities for major donors to participate in events, join committees or boards, or even visit project sites.

Capacity for Delayed Gratification

One significant trait that sets major donors apart from others is their capacity for delayed gratification. They understand that change takes time and are willing to invest in long-term initiatives. This patience enables them to maintain their support even when progress is slow or the impact is not immediately apparent.

However, it's essential for fundraisers to understand that delayed gratification does not mean no gratification. While these individuals may be patient, they still expect to see a return on their investment in the form of tangible progress.

Action items: To ensure that major donors continue to feel satisfied and valued, fundraisers should:

  • Be transparent about the expected timeline for achieving specific goals or milestones, emphasizing the importance of sustained support in realizing the organization's mission.
  • Provide regular updates on the organization's progress, sharing successes and achievements, as well as any challenges or setbacks that may have been encountered along the way.
  • Share stories of how the organization's work has made a difference in the lives of individuals or communities, reinforcing the long-term impact of the donor's support.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate the donor's role in the organization's achievements, ensuring they feel recognized and appreciated for their contribution to the cause.


How AI Can Help You Strengthen Relationships With Major Donors

By removing manual tasks from your plate and helping you effectively engage major donors, AI tools saves fundraisers time and helps them create connections that drive impact.

Explore Momentum’s guide on Major Gift Fundraising and AI


Signs stating major donor empathy

The Motivations of Major Donors

Understanding the different types of motivations that drive donors to support a cause is critical in designing compelling fundraising campaigns. Major donors can have various motivations, which can be broadly categorized into the following types:


These donors are primarily driven by the mission of the organization and the impact it has on the cause they care about. They want to know their contributions will make a tangible difference and often seek to be informed about the progress of the projects they support.


Status-oriented donors are motivated by the recognition and prestige associated with philanthropy. They may be interested in having their names displayed prominently or receiving exclusive benefits as a result of their donations. For these donors, the social standing that comes with giving is a significant driver.


Altruistic donors are motivated by a genuine desire to help others and make the world a better place. They may not necessarily seek recognition or personal gain from their contributions but are driven by a sense of moral obligation or compassion.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of accepting a six-figure donation from an anonymous donor, you are dealing with an altruist, even though you may not be able to thank them.

Expected Value

When making a donation, major donors often have certain expectations about the value they will derive from their contribution. Understanding these expectations can help fundraisers appeal to their interests and secure larger donations. Some common types of expected value include:

  • Tangible outcomes: Donors may expect their contributions to lead to specific, measurable results, such as funding a certain number of scholarships or building a new facility.
  • Emotional rewards: Donors often derive emotional satisfaction from giving, such as feelings of happiness, pride, or fulfillment.
  • Social benefits: Donors may expect their contributions to enhance their social standing or relationships with others who share their interests.
  • Intellectual stimulation: Some donors are interested in the learning opportunities that come with supporting a cause, such as attending lectures or engaging in discussions about the issue.
 Major donors volunteering at food kitchen

How to Use Fundraising Psychology: Strategies and Tips

Knowing the traits and motivations of your major donors enables you to tailor your communications and more effectively build relationships. Here are a few strategies to help you incorporate fundraising psychology into everyday communications.

Incorporate Agentic Appeals

There are lots of fancy studies out of Harvard that use terms like “agentic appeals.”

The research suggests that agentic appeals can make a substantial difference in both size and frequency of gifts.

But what is an agentic appeal?

In a word: ego.

Donors want to feel like they matter. So by framing the donor as a hero in the story of the cause, fundraisers can tap into the donor's desire to make a difference and create a strong connection between them and the organization. Some strategies for crafting agentic appeals include:

  • Emphasizing the donor's unique role in achieving the organization's mission
  • Highlighting the specific impact of the donor's contribution
  • Sharing stories of how previous donors have made a difference
  • Offering opportunities for personal involvement or engagement with the cause

Advance the Donor's Hero Story

Make the donor the hero of the story. Make a donor feel like a project could not have happened without them (which may be true!).  Here are some ways to advance the donor's hero story:

  • Share personal stories of individuals or communities who have benefited from the donor's support, illustrating the real-life impact of their contributions.
  • Provide regular updates on the progress of the projects or initiatives funded by the donor, showcasing their ongoing impact.
  • Offer opportunities for donors to meet or interact with the people they have helped, creating a personal connection between the donor and the cause.
  • Celebrate the donor's milestones and accomplishments within the organization, such as recognizing them for reaching a specific giving level or highlighting their contributions in newsletters and annual reports.

Leverage Social Proof

In donor psychology, social proof plays a critical role in influencing potential donors to give. When individuals see others supporting a cause, they are more likely to follow suit. That’s why silent auctions can be so effective.

By leveraging social proof, fundraisers can create a sense of community and collective effort around their cause. Some ways to incorporate social cues into your fundraising strategy include:

  • Showcase testimonials or endorsements from prominent individuals or other donors, demonstrating the credibility and worthiness of your cause.
  • Share success stories and the impact that past donations have had on your organization, showing potential donors that their support can create tangible change.
  • Utilize social media to highlight the support and enthusiasm of your donor community, creating a sense of momentum and urgency around your cause.
  • Organize events or gatherings where donors can meet and interact with one another, fostering a sense of belonging and shared purpose.

Drive Impact to Your Cause Using Fundraising Psychology

Understanding fundraising psychology is crucial for building lasting relationships with major donors. By learning the psychology and motivations behind your major donors, you’re able to develop a relationship with donors that fosters trust and leads to generosity for your cause.

To more easily incorporate fundraising psychology into your major gift program, explore Momentum. Momentum’s AI Donor Engagement Platform leverages AI and behavioral science to help fundraisers streamline their workloads and better engage their donors. Remove manual tasks from your plate, use AI to help you prioritize donor outreach, draft personalized email communications, and develop relationships with major donors.

Explore Momentum’s major gift fundraising solution.

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