Types of Givers: Ideas for Engaging Different Donors

Four unique giving types make up most donor pools.

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As a stewardship leader, it is important to engage different sets of donors. Not everyone is cut from the same cloth, and yet fundraising can copy a singular pattern. Based on research that I and my colleagues conducted, I recommend the best way to mix up stewardship appeals is to engage different donors by meeting them where they are. Appeal to the different approaches people take with their giving decisions. 

Giving Approaches

How do people approach giving to charitable and religious causes? In studying answers to the question, we found that the answer is that there is no one way. Yet, it is not the other extreme either, and the oft-repeated phrase everyone is unique is not helpful. Between these two extremes is a balanced approach in which there are discernable types of givers, and these can inform donor communication. Through a national representative survey and follow-up in-person interviews, we learned from thousands of everyday Americans about the ways they go about their giving. 

The recommendations I offer here are based especially on answers to these two questions: 

  1. When it comes to voluntary financial giving, do you
    1. follow systems or routines (A1)
    2. take a more spontaneous or situational approach (A2)
    3. or not give money away (A3)? 
  2. Have you ever…
    1. made a conscious decision to give more money away (B1)
    2. or has financial giving just happened (B2)
    3. or do you not give money for charitable, religious, or other causes (B3)? 

[As an aside, it is helpful if you take a moment to answer these two questions for yourself first, and then write down your combination of answers based on the letter and number in parentheses. For example, your answers could be A1+B2 or A2+B1, etc.]

Types of Givers

Together, the two giver answers to these two questions form four possible giver types. We call these types: Planned, Habitual, Selective, and Impulsive Givers. 

  • Planned Givers (A1+B1) make a conscious decision to give and follow systems or routines in their giving. About 16 percent of American donors are Planned Givers. 
  • Habitual Givers (A1+B2) are only about 6 percent of American donors who just happen to give yet also follow systems or routines of giving. 
  • About 17 percent of American donors, Selective Givers (A2+B1) make a conscious decision to give yet also give spontaneously. 
  • The largest donor type is Impulsive Givers (A2+B2): giving just happens and with a spontaneous or situational approach.

Giver types matter because the typical amount donated tends to move stepwise across giver types. While Planned and Habitual Givers are the least likely to donate nothing, Planned and Selective donate in larger amounts. Alternatively, Impulsive Givers are the largest group but give the lowest amounts. Also important is that these types represent different sets of people. People who have a college degree and are religiously active are most likely to be Planned Givers, which means that people engaged in stewardship appeals tend to be this type. Habitual Givers are highly religiously active with lower income levels. These are the prototypical tithers, who can give more from less. 

Since people who are religiously active are most likely to be and know givers of the first two types, faith leaders especially need to think about the other two types. Selective Givers tend to have a college degree with less religious activity, and Impulsive Givers tend to have high incomes with little to no religiosity.

Engaging Different Donors

The implications are many when it comes to communicating with different donor types.

Planned and Habitual Givers

  • Both these types of givers are more likely to already be in the donor base, which means it is about maintaining a relationship in a way that works well for their approach.
  • Annual reports are most likely to appeal to Planned Givers
  • Habitual Givers may be miffed if they are contacted too regularly.
  • For classic tithers, an infrequent reminder works well. 

Selective and Impulsive Givers

  • Both types are less likely to already be in the donor base, and they may not be on the membership roster either. 
  • For Selective Givers, it is more important to form an initial relationship. Just like a potential romantic partner would not ask to see a suiter’s credit score on the first date, it is not best to start off with a financial request. Instead, it would work better to begin with explaining the importance of the cause to a Selective Giver, sharing the reasons why this organization should be supported instead of another. 
  • For Impulsive Givers, the goal is to share compelling information about why a person should give at all, and this is best done through a captivating appeal that brings an emotional response.

  • Patricia Snell Herzog

    Patricia Snell Herzog, PhD is a sociologist and associate professor in the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Her research interests include charitable giving, religiosity, youth, and emerging adults. Pursuing a passion for evidence-based reasoning and applied research that informs leaders, her publications include books such as: The Science of Generosity: Manifestations, Causes, and Consequences; American Generosity: Who Gives and Why; and Souls in Transition: The Religious Lives of Emerging Adults in America.

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