planned giving as a way to grow funding
Fundraising Published Date, 2021

The Two Most Important Motivators You Need To Know About Mega-Donors

Created By: Craig H. Shelley, CFRE
March 15, 2021

Philanthropy is changing. We see it in the data as smaller numbers of donors are giving larger total dollars each year. We hear it anecdotally as donors change the fortunes of entire missions with the stroke of a pen, or more accurately, the swiped approval of a bank transfer. A smaller number of people are moving the needle on myriad missions.  Setting aside the ethical and societal repercussions of this trend, it’s a reality fundraisers and nonprofit leaders need to deal with.

Many of these large, $10M+ gifts are not being made to the traditional recipients, such as universities and healthcare institutions.  The motivations behind these mega-gifts are different and so is what we can offer these donors to engage and recognize them.  How do you hold the attention of a $25M donor with no emergency room to name in their honor and no football game to provide them access to?  First, we must understand their motivations.


I’m not cynical enough (yet) to not credit altruism as the prime motivator for these gifts.  These donors see the world as it is and want to change it, to make it better.  With that in mind, the single best way to capture the attention of a mega-philanthropist remains a big idea and credibility you can deliver on that idea.  That said, altruism alone has never moved money.  Mega-philanthropists, like all donors, are also motivated by some combination of ego and intellect.  They are not significantly motivated by financial considerations.  Most are giving far beyond any tax considerations and to the degree financial planning is always a factor, they have chosen and created the vehicles they use for giving to satisfy these purposes.  So, we can leave the “fully tax-deductible” language out of our proposals.  These donations are about how they see themselves in the world (ego) and what voids we can fill in their intellectual lives (intellect).


Fundraising has always prayed on the ego of donors. Named buildings, donor listings in annual reports, even recognition at events has always been about scratching this itch for a donor.  While we can continue to engage donors with these traditional tools, mega-philanthropists want more.

Donor Communities

It’s not just about who else is on the donor list with them, it’s about who else is in the room with them.  Creating a community amongst your largest donors becomes a motivator for them to continue engaging and for new ones to join.  Being with their peers, or perceived peers, is a necessary offering.


Celebrities are also becoming a feature that mega-philanthropists are looking for.  Whether it’s the professional athlete that is active on your board making the meetings “cool” for philanthropists to tell their friends about, or the Grammy-award winning artist offering to join the pitch meeting, this validation and access goes a long way.  If Bono wants to be involved in this, what does it say about me that they’re asking me to be involved? That said, the celebrity involved must be value, issue and brand aligned so the authenticity of these relationships is paramount.  There are ways to pay for celebrity, but in this context that’s not helpful and will be a turnoff.  Mega-philanthropists are attracted because they see the celebrity as a peer so they expect that, like them, they will be personally and financially invested in the cause.  In some ways you can think of this as the “Instagramification” of mega-philanthropy; no matter how much money you have, a selfie with Taylor Swift supporting your favorite nonprofit together is priceless.


Having money doesn’t mean you’re smart.  But a lot of smart people have money to give away.  A common feature of mega-philanthropists, particularly those who made their money via entrepreneurship, is curiosity.  Their philanthropic activity allows them to access a different set of interests beyond just making money.  It allows them to support their passions and experience those passions differently.  It provides access to people that are thinking about different things.

Donor and Practitioner Communities

The most successful manifestation of this community of peer nonprofit leaders and donors I’ve experienced is New Profit’s Gathering of Leaders.  By putting donors and social entrepreneurs together as equals, the most valuable beneficiaries are the donors.  The access to people who are different than them feeds their intellectual curiosity and always results in greater personal and financial investment.  Every nonprofit can create this dynamic with their most valuable donors by drawing them into planning and socializing with those “doing the work.”  It is important not to ask donors to solve the challenges your organization sees in the field, not because they won’t want to or won’t have good ideas, but because the power dynamic will result in best intentions going askew.  But designing environments where givers and doers can come together as peers will yield powerful results.

Information and Data

Aside from physical and virtual interactions, data can also help to engage mega-philanthropists meaningfully.  Rare is the mega-philanthropist who is unaccustomed to interpreting data and monitoring dashboards in their professional lives.  Mirror this access and information sharing both in frequency and format.  Large donors think of their gifts as investments.  Provide them information just as they would for an investment.  Illustrate the ROI for them. Establish the metrics that matter to your organization and illustrate your impact and progress. Report those things to donors and be clear upfront that these are the things that matter and why.

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