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James V. Toscano

About James

What Really Provokes a Donation? It Isn’t About Money!!

A new non-profit organization with a Board of dedicated, eager, enthusiastic true believers once asked me to review their emerging development plan. One of the first things they wanted to do, as soon as they could afford it, was to buy a mailing list of the “50,000 Richest Individuals in the United States”!

Obviously well-intensioned but off on the wrong foot, they planned to write a letter to each of them, figuring that at least 10-20% would send a thousand dollars.

Where did they get these assumptions? Mostly out of blind optimism about their cause. My dilemma centered on how not to throw out the baby, i.e. their high motivation to get funds, with the proverbial bath water.

What is in Common with Potential Donors?

My first question to them focused on what they might have in common with potential donors. Did they know of any local individuals who might be on the list? If so, what might motivate them to assist this cause?

This led, steered by the consultant, to a discussion about case statements, and the basis for making claims on the generosity and bank accounts of potential donors. What appeal could this group legitimately make? And to whom?

Hours later, some clarity was apparent: non-profit groups need to base their appeals on the shared values of the organization and the potential donors. My advice was to “Focus the Development Plan on the Values of the Donor and of the Organization.”

The Importance of Shared Values

It became obvious that values precede and determine financial gifts, that it was the value system and not just the money that was essential. Finding wealthy people didn’t presage large donations; sharing values did.

Boards often don’t talk about societal and organization values. Certainly they have priorities, goals, objectives, missions, vision, outcomes, statistics, etc. “Values” often throw them.

A skillfully-led Board discussion and analysis of the values they espouse often hits major pay dirt. It’s not that the embedded values are a mystery, or that it is a difficult discussion. It’s a different way of talking about what motivates them, those they serve, and those who give.


American society is driven by a set of core values deeply woven into our culture and history. The very idea of voluntarism is a case in point. Tocqueville saw it as a prominent characteristic of America in the 1830′s and 1840′s; Lord Bryce confirmed it later it that century. Numerous commentators in the next century saw voluntarism as alive and well, writer diverse as Dennis Brogan, Luigi Barzini and Octavio Paz.

I would think that new visitors from abroad would still find the voluntary nature of all the things we do rather remarkable.

Societal values are “distributed” through markets, government action, and non-profit organizations. The medium in the market is money;  government’s ultimate means is power; I would contend that non-profits deal largely in the higher values of the society, at least what the society says it values highly.

For example, we organize churches, arts, most hospitals, social services, colleges, among others, into non-profit organizations. The franchise is not exclusive, for there are many more governmental functions now in these areas; there are also private companies running city schools, universities, and hospitals. Interestingly enough, we call most non-profit hospitals “community” or ”public,” and the for-profit hospitals, “private.” We  own the non-profits as a society and we know it.

We can thus rally constituencies around societal value themes: higher education, specific religious thought, health, social welfare, social justice, sculpture, dance, and a much longer list of increasingly segmented, differentiated value areas.

Changing Values

All societal values, however, aren’t fixed. Values change as society, and segments of the society, change. What was important fifty years ago may not be important now. Millenials and Boomers differ onsiderably in thier orientation to charitable giving, as many studies show.

I remember seeking funding, in the mid-’80s, for medical research to investigate a new viral condition that was devastating the immune systems of gay men. Blank stares, condemnation of behaviors, and refusals were the rule.

We had to learn more, we had to integrate this phenomenon into a larger societal priority system, and we had to reinterpret the values at stake here before we got on track. I’m pleased to say that today society accepts and supports  funds for AIDS research, and that an AIDS walk is one of the larger fundraising events in the Twin Cities.


With an increasing value-segmented society, how does an organization find its highest potential constituency? There are the tried and true methods: Obtain the annual reports of several competitors, examine donor lists, and collate a single list. Because most donors give to more than one charity in a given area, there is high probably that this list has potential.

My best answer to the question is: sociometry!!!

By sociometry, I mean identifying the networks of like-minded, value sharing individuals and institutions who communicate with each other, work and join in with each other for common purpose, understand each other’s differences, and name each other when asked by people like me about like-minded others.

In other words, talk to potentials donors and ask them about their likes and dislikes, their priorities, their values! Ask them about others.

And listen carefully.

Answers determine if they can be drawn into the organization, to volunteering, to giving, to working with others, to asking for money. It’s a process that starts with talking, but mostly listening, to discover individuals with potential for the organization.

Sociometry becomes the basic process for development of the traditional pyramid. It forms the underpinnings for a donor-centered, values approach to identification, cultivation, enlistment, and solicitation of individuals.

Donor Value Centricity

The donor-centered values approach constitutes the infrastructure for the entire development program, from direct mail through individual major giving to estate planning. It also provides the themes for special events.

Donor-centeredness, or more precisely, donor-value-centricity, then emerges as the way we run our development program. This does not mean that donors determine what our organization does.  Boards make those decisions.  It does mean that after the congruency of organizational mission and donor values are established, that constituency is identified, cultivated and developed and that time is invested wisely and that patience rules, then the development program will be  successful.

Above all, it means that potential for significant success of our organizations, societal gain, and donor satisfaction and loyalty will all be significantly enhanced.


This article was contributed by James Toscano and Dania Toscano Miwa, of Toscano Advisors, LLC,


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