The 7 Types of Philanthropists, and Why They Give

Major philanthropists may give in response to personal calls to ethics, faith, or social responsibility, or other reasons they find deeply and personally engaging. Other donors, particularly large corporations, may give in part as a component of their overall financial strategy, or to further expansion of brand recognition and public presence. 

A 1994 study by Russ Alan Prince and Karen Maru File continues to help fundraisers understand the most common motivations donors have for giving. The research and its findings offered nonprofit professionals a way to analyze the giving landscape. Its insights remain useful for anyone who wants to understand the nature and impact of philanthropy.

Communitarians

The most frequently encountered face of giving is that of the “Communitarian,” according to the study. For these givers, who anchor themselves in their local, national, or global communities, philanthropy makes sense as part of their desire to build and maintain these communities. This type of giver typically looks to support projects that benefit populations close to their hearts. 

Communitarian givers are often founders or owners of local businesses and can be frequently visible faces at local community functions.

The Devout

The “Devout” face of philanthropy refers to people who believe in their giving as an expression of religious faith or duty. Their desire to do what they believe a higher power requires of them drives them to support their chosen organizations, both financially and through personal involvement. These donors, who span the faith spectrum, see giving as an act of religious devotion. If they have the blessings of wealth, they feel they have a moral obligation to share it with others in need. 

“Devoutness” has evolved over the past few generations. Analysts point to the fact that the generation that fought World War II general supported singular institutions, such a house of worship college, or large-scale organization such as the American Cancer Society. The baby boomer generation supported multiple organizations related to an issue such as the environment or social justice. For many of today’s young donors, institutions in which they play a personal role are foremost targets of their personal sense of devotion.

Repayers

“Repayers” in this framing are donors who give back to organizations that have helped them or someone they love. They may be former beneficiaries of the generosity of the organization to which they have gone on to contribute, or they may give to a different group with a similar mission. Examples would include a person who received a live-saving kidney transplant who now gives to a kidney foundation, or adoptive parents who contribute to groups that make adoption easier.

Altruists

“Altruists” are donors who often walk among us anonymously. They give simply because it seems right to do so, making them feel their actions are in harmony with the need to bring more justice, fairness, or goodness into the world. They seldom consider whether they or their families will benefit from their generosity; they are simply compelled to reach out and help whenever and however they can.

Socialites

“Socialite” donors are attracted by the social excitement of joining in with others to further a good cause while having fun. They may do a lot of good for an organization, while still requiring considerable effort to keep them engaged: In the analysis of many experts, this group is the most challenging for an organization to maintain. Socialite donors are often highly successful at orchestrating and headlining events and can be excellent spokespeople who can draw friends and family into a cause.

Investors

“Investors” view their giving as a necessary part of doing good business. They typically focus on balance sheets to look for specific returns on their investments in charitable causes and want to see how numbers add up within their long-term financial planning. These donors also may bring strong and heartfelt personal commitments to their giving, but typically lead their charitable conversations with a search for measurable outcomes. 

Dynasts

“Dynast” donors, who are often people working with inherited wealth, have grown up accustomed to giving as a part of everyday life, and often feel expected to continue in a family tradition of support for specific causes.

“Dynasts” include great giving families whose names adorn well-known foundations today: The Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie foundations have funded major national efforts toward medical care, education, and culture over generations.

For those who work with nonprofit organizations, knowing how to build relationships with multiple types of donors is part of the lifeblood of day-to-day public service.