A Study of Donors to a University Campaign

As government largesse in North America remains tight and to a degree capricious, publicly funded institutions such as hospitals and universities often turn to private sources to raise additional funds. Yet Sherry (1983) notes, “Gift exchange between the individual and the corporate group is less frequently described and less perfectly understood than other types of giving”. Most studies to date (e.g., National Easter Seal Society Survey, 1983) have examined philanthropy to care-giving causes.

This paper looks at the motivations and characteristics of donors to the alumni campaign of an educational institution. It presents the model that was used as a framework for the study; describes the data collection and the findings; and then indicates several links that emerged to donating behavior in support of medical and other care-giving causes such as Third World Famine Relief. It concludes by identifying some implications for fund-raising campaigns in support of education.


A fund-raising campaign was conducted in the winter of 1986/7 among the alumni of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. (This campaign was part of a broader fund-raising initiative involving corporate donors; they are not part of this study.) Donations were received from 545 persons representing 27 per cent of the alumni canvassed both by telephone and by mail. These 545 donors were subsequently asked to fill out a questionnaire which was designed to produce a profile of the people who gave, their motivations for giving, and their responsiveness to certain features of the campaign. A sample of 545 was then selected at random from alumni who had failed to respond to the campaign and the same questionnaire was sent to them.

The Survey Model

Some scholars have looked at donors to medical causes (e.g., Rosenblatt eta1986) from the perspective of a Health Belief Model (Becker, 1974;

Rosenstock, 1966) which tries to predict individual willingness to take steps to maintain or enhance health and posits self-preservation as a prime mo­tive. Since no such model exists for education, this study was shaped by a perception of the individual-institutional gift exchange as an interaction influenced by person variables on the one side and campaign variables on the other. An attempt was therefore made (i) to identify the motivations of donors to an alumni association fund-raising drive, and (ii) to identify segmentation variables which might differentiate givers from non-givers, and larger donors from smaller, for the purpose of devising a campaign strategy.

To profile donors, 13 possible motives for philanthropic giving were iden­tified from the practitioner literature (Brakeley, 1980), and two others were elicited from experienced fund raisers in the local area. The two fund raisers agreed that all of the motives under investigation had validity: Belief In The Cause; Joy Of Giving; Liking To Be Asked; Altruism; Sympathy (in the face of some perceived deprivation); Pride and Self-Respect (at being able to give); Obligation (or a feeling of social responsibility); PayBack or Reciprocity (for benefits received); Nostalgia; and Immortality, referring to a memorial gift The remaining motives take the form of externally administered incentives: Appreciation (expressions of gratitude); Recognition (public acknowledgement of a gift); and Tax Credit. Finally, it was agreed that some people are motivated by the urge to Compete, and that others will give in response to Pressure or the “hard sell”.

The study also examined possible segmentation variables with respect to personality and demographic characteristics which might differentiate donors from non-donors and might also influence the relative size of a donation. Because so many care-giving initiatives focus on the plight of the individual (e.g., Foster Parents Plan), an early assumption was made that the more effective appeals would centre on the individual student or faculty beneficiary, rather than on “faceless” benefits for the institution (e.g., more books for the library). It was also hypothesized that a person’s leadership style could provide some indication of the type of appeal that might be most compelling to him or her, i.e., one couched in terms of benefit to an individual with whom the prospective donor might identify such as a needy student who would receive a bursary, or one couched in terms of goals to be achieved, e.g., a new University Centre and more, or better, lab equipment, which represent “getting on with the job” of promot­ing education and research for the good of the collective. Using a standard test instrument1 the researchers therefore attempted to learn whether a particular respondent would generally favour participant wellbeing or task execution were he or she acting as a leader of some group endeavour.

With respect to demographic characteristics, it was anticipated that those with greater fmancial means would give larger amounts.

Data Collection

The data were collected in June 1987 by means of a mail survey.The cover­ing letter specified the purpose of the survey: to investigate why some graduates respond to a request for a donation while others do not It was clearly stated that this was not an appeal for money but an academic research study which would address existing theoretical gaps. Return postage was guaranteed. The response was 242 completed and usable forms from the givers and 77 completed and usable forms from the non-givers.

The first part of the three-part, 93-item questionnaire used a seven-point semantic differential scale to explore the 15 possible motives for donating funds listed above. Preliminary meetings with the two experienced fund raisers pointed out any ambiguities or irrelevancies in the original ques­tionnaire. Because so many variables were under investigation, the number of items associated with each was limited so the questionnaire could be completed in 25 minutes to encourage an adequate rate of return.

As noted, the second part of the questionnaire consisted of a standard test consisting of 33 items which was designed to measure whether the in­dividual respondent would focus predominantly on “people concerns” or “task-execution concerns” if he or she were managing some collective en­deavour.

The fmal portion of the questionnaire sought to collect demographic data, i.e., personal information about the respondents. Anonymity and confiden­tiality of results were guaranteed in a covering letter.


Univariate statistical analyses revealed few differences in the demographic profile of the two groups. Table 1 summarizes the key findings

Chi-square analysis was used to examine whether there is any significant relationship between either gender or language group (English,French) and giving. No relationship was found; however, the same analytical procedure did reveal a strong relationship between proclivity to support other causes and support for the university.

A factor analysis was conducted and the following factors, believed to be possible motives for donating, were identified: Joy of Giving; Recognition; Immortality; Tax Credit; Nostalgia; and Sympathy. Discriminant analysis,

using the motives for giving that had emerged from the factor analysis, was


Demographic Characteristics Of Respondents



M=39 yrs.


M=39 yrs.

Family Income



49.4% male


55.8% male

Years Out



Support Other Causes



Support Other Universities

1 in 6

1 in 8

M =median

Note: 97.4% of respondents hold undergraduate degrees and 72.7% of these are Bachelor of Arts degrees, reflecting the character of the institution.

then performed on half of the donors and half of the non-donors, selected at random. The factors which were found to differentiate givers and non­givers were Joy of Giving, Tax Credit, and Immortality. The discriminant function successfully differentiated 79 per cent of cases in the hold-out sample. It was determined that Joy of Giving, which incorporates the no­tion of deriving pleasure from being able to give to causes one believes in, characterizes donors more markedly than non-donors. As one would expect, the prospect of a tax credit means little to individuals who do not in­tend to give anyway. It was also found that emphasis on a permanent tribute or remembrance has a negative impact on both donors and non­donors, but more so on non-donors.

Discriminant analysis was also performed on the dependent variable, Donorship, using the Concern for People and Concern for Task scores from the T-P Leadership Questionnaire, plus a variety of demographic predictor variables: Age, Sex, Language (anglophone or francophone), Salary, Years after Graduation, Attendance at Another University, Support for Another University, and Support for Other Causes. It was found that donors are more inclined to support other causes, with support for other universities being a particular case, and are more task-oriented than nondonors. The discriminant function correctly classified 70 per cent of the cases in a hold-out sample.

Discriminant analysis using the people and task scores and the same set of demographic predictor variables was undertaken to determine whether one could differentiate donors who give amounts in excess of $50 from those who give less. The discriminant function included Task Orientation, Age, Salary, Number of Years Out, and Gender, and was found to classify correctly 67 per cent of cases. Donors who give more than $50 are likely to be older (M=43 as compared with M=37); are likely to have a higher family income (between $60 and $70 thousand on average rather than between $40 and $50 thousand); to have been out longer (12.1 years on average, rather than 9.4), to be male, and to be more task oriented2.
Discussion In examining giving directed to causes outside the care-giving domain, the question arises as to why one finds people willing to give consistently and generously to organizations such as universities and political parties, or to cultural causes such as TV Ontario. Given the spectrum of highly visible and competing causes, many devoted to serious human misfortune, and some to threat reduction in an area where the donor may feel personally vulnerable, it might be expected that an appeal for funds for a donor’s alma mater would be perceived as relatively unimportant and hence be relatively ignored. It is arguable that individuals perceive little risk of being personally affected by the financial plight of a postsecondary institution, in contrast for example to the threat of cancer, and hence lack this incen­tive to support the alumni appeal. What, then, accounts for donations to social causes which do not focus on human misfortune? Clearly risk reduc­tion is not a necessary condition for philanthropic gestures. Is it simply that such donors have abundant personal resources, enough to cover the gamut of competing social causes? Hardly. It is absurd to propose that political and educational causes merely receive some leftover portion of philanthropic largesse after the life and death causes have been supported.

This analysis suggests that Motivation or willingness to give to one’s alma mater arises primarily from Joy of Giving, and to a lesser extent from the prospect of a Tax Credit Funds or effort are thus exchanged for psychological gratification (Lovelock and Weinberg, 1984:55) and this exchange is reinforced by the further, albeit less compelling, incentive of a tax break. Apparently the psychological gratification or joy arising from giving to causes with which one identifies can evoke consistent and generous support in the absence of physical suffering or perceived personal risk, the driving forces in the Health Belief Model.

It should be noted, however, that although implications of self-preserva­tion are markedly absent, one can nonetheless find a certain analogy in the Health Belief Model. The model states that action ensues from a perception of the seriousness of the situation or condition and the effectiveness of the proposed remedy. Surely Joy of Giving subsumes the perception that the cause is a serious one, or at least personally significant, and that a contribution of funds, effort, or time can make some difference.

It is also noteworthy that an earlier survey of the motives of those who donate to care-giving causes (National Easter Seal Society, 1983) discovered that people donate because they view the Easter Seal Society as a “worthy organization” and in some cases know someone whom it has helped. It would appear, therefore, that support of the Easter Seals campaign offers satisfaction with no self-preservation motive present Thus in certain in­stances, even within the care-giving domain, one finds evidence of the impetus of psychological gratification relatively devoid of the threat-reduction element suggested in earlier models of donating behaviour based on the Health Belief Model.

In terms of segmentation variables, a task orientation and a propensity to support other causes were found to distinguish givers from non-givers.The first of these findings goes against a practice often observed in the caregiving field, where the focus is on the individual person coping with, or falling victim to, his or her misfortune—and perhaps there is good reason for a different approach when soliciting funds for the cause of higher education. Tangible goals requiring substantial sums of money may bring the needed visibility and perceived seriousness lacking in an alumni fundraising campaign couched in terms of the individual beneficiary. Using the plight of a needy student or an underfunded researcher to produce a tug at the heartstrings or vulnerabilities of prospective donors pales when placed against the backdrop of other human misfortunes. Clearly an alternative approach is to set large, high-profile goals (e.g., a new University Centre) that benefit the collective and bespeak “getting on with the task” of providing sound educational services to the served market Moreover, in so far as attainment of these goals is usually high cost, conspicuous, and durable, donors can experience continuing satisfaction that their money has been put to a “good” use.

With regard to Support for other Causes, it would seem that donating behaviour is affected by the donor’s personal history of philanthropy. This same fmding emerged in R Markoff’s 1978 study of alumni donors to the University of Toledo (Chewning, 1985) and was also revealed in the Na­tional Easter Seal Society Survey. One possible interpretation is that people who gave earlier give again for the same reasons each time. The findingis also, however, consistent with research associated with Fishbein and Ajzen’s widely recognized Theory of Reasoned Action (1975; 1980), which suggests that past behaviour exerts a direct effect on subsequent behaviour (e.g., Ajzen and Madden, 1986; Fredericks and Dossett, 1983; Manstead et a1983). Feelings of satisfaction derived from a particular behaviour promote repeat behaviour just as adverse consequences, for instance those experienced by some blood donors, inhibit repetition.

With respect to segmentation variables that determine the size of the dona­tion (largesse), again Task Orientation emerges and, as might be expected, Family Income, Age, Years Out, and Gender. It would follow that Means, frequently accounted for by income, is a most important determinant of the size of a donation.

This study has implications for any campaign in support of an education­al cause. Joy of Giving, which may be associated with psychological gratification, has been identified as the primary motivation for responding to an alumni solicitation. This can be linked to the finding that the donors who responded exhibit a higher “concern for task” than “concern for people”, and suggests that donors will derive greatest satisfaction from participating in fund raising directed toward broad educational and research goals.

One must, however, bear in mind that a cause must be considered “worthy” of support relative to a wide spectrum of competing causes often linked to personal threat and suffering. It would appear that high-profile, durable and tangible goals tied into the central functions of the university have the best chance of being taken seriously by the prospective donor and of giving rise to a feeling of satisfaction after the donor has contributed. These find­ings in tandem suggest, for example, that centering a campaign initiative on a new university centre or an addition to the library facilities, which would play a central role in campus life, gives weight to a fund-raising en­deavour not afforded by bursaries for individual students. It would be expected that this same perceived “substantiality” of goal would provide most donors with some incremental measure of satisfaction in its attainment, and subsequent pleasure as there will be an enduring reminder.

The study revealed that the likelihood that a person will donate to a particular cause is strongly linked to his or her being a supporter of other causes. This finding indicates the importance of setting goals with which the prospective first-time donors can readily identify and feel proud to assist, as the satisfaction derived from an initial gift can be expected to in­crease the chance of further support. At the same time, this study confirmed the importance of the ability to give (Means), particularly in relation to the size of the gift, a factor which no canvasser is likely to overlook for longwhen cultivating a prospect list Not unexpectedly a reminder about tax considerations is in order, although these data suggest that the tax aspect plays a very secondary role to the intrinsic satisfaction associated with donating to a cause in which one believes.


1. The T-P Leadership Questionnaire found inA Handbook of Structured Experien­ces for Human Relations Training, Vol. 1 (1974). Adapted from Sergiovanni, Metzcus, and Burden’s revision of the “Leadership Behavior Description Questionnaire”, American Education Research Journal. 6 (1969), 62-79.

2. A more detailed discussion of the statistical procedures and results reported in this article is available in the Proceedings of the Administrative Sciences Association of Canada, Vol. 9, part 3, 1988, pp. 101-109.


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Associate Professor, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario


Coordinator of Student Activities, Cambrian College of Applied Arts and Technology, Sudbury, Ontario


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