Why We Need To Know More About Donor Journeys

by Michael Moody

This post first appeared on the Giving Compass website. The original post can be viewed here.

Every donor has a journey. Every giving family has a story to tell about their philanthropic path and past. In one sense, this is an unremarkable truism, like “we all walk our own path.”

But a donor’s journey — your journey — is more than just a story. The journey can have a fundamental and powerful influence on all aspects of a donor’s giving — on why, when, where, to whom, how, how much, and, perhaps most important, how well they give. Some donor journeys lead to more catalytic and impactful giving than others. And frankly, some donors enjoy their giving journeys more than others, often because of the impact they’ve seen along the way. Those are the ones who are most eager to plot out the next leg of their route.

Because donor journeys matter so much, we need to know more about them. We need more donors telling their stories — the happy parts and the tough parts. And we need more careful analysis of the different types of journeys that donors take, of the pros and cons of different kinds of philanthropic learning, of how diversions or unexpected obstacles in the path affect donors and their giving, and many other questions.

Too often we think of a donor journey as standardized and linear, as a series of stages that all donors have — or must — go through in the same order. But learning and adaptation and identity development are more complicated and varied than that. This is especially true in a time of great change and generational transition in philanthropy, when donors are increasingly blazing new trails, creating new philanthropic entities, and seeking different forms of engagement with the causes they support.

We need to invite diverse donors to reflect on their experiences. We need to ask questions, gather data, and analyze journeys in ways that capture this increasing variability. And we need to share lessons across individuals and giving families of every sort.

This magazine will be a space to bring forward those donor stories, to ask those questions, and share those lessons — both from donors themselves and from research. We invite you to join us in this process.

Similarities and Differences in Donor Journeys

As we dig deeper into donor journeys, we will surely find that, yes, many donors and philanthropic families go through very similar experiences. Donors who are just starting out often ask similar questions and face predictable choices. And many of philanthropy’s more seasoned travelers tell tales about epiphanies they had in working with a particular grantee, or challenges they encountered during a family transition. These similarities in donor paths emerged clearly, for example, in research I conducted (with Sharna Goldseker) on next gen donors. We heard common stories over and over — about how donors had to learn to fit their ambitions to the realities of working closely with grantees, or about how younger donors in giving families struggled to find a balance between stewarding legacy and trying new approaches.

These sorts of similarities are of course essential to identify and examine. Still, no two donor journeys are exactly alike, and the steps even very similar donors take can be quite varied.

Think, for instance, of how some new donors from the hedge fund world dive into their giving with the same analytical intensity they use in their business, while others decide to write a big check to their alma mater and return their focus elsewhere. Think of how different members of the same multigenerational giving family sometimes engage in radically different ways with their family institutions. Think of your own path and how it compares to your peers’.

We see this diversity of donor journeys everywhere. Some donors travel alone, some with a spouse, and some with many generations of family on board. Some want a detailed map as they begin to give. Others prefer to wander. And almost all donors are faced at some point with an unexpected fork in the road; how they react to that fork is often what most defines and differentiates their story.

In all cases, the journey matters, and those of us interested in improving and expanding giving need to learn more about these journeys so we can make them better, so we can help donors of all types take the steps they need to have greater impact. This is the purpose of this magazine, and of a larger project called the “Donor Journeys Initiative” that I am leading at the Johnson Center over the next two years.

The kick-off to that Initiative is happening at the end of this month, as the Johnson Center convenes our fifth biennial National Summit on Family Philanthropy, in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 28 and 29. At the Summit, we will begin this deep-dive into donor journeys, with family philanthropists from around the country sharing where they’ve been, what they’ve learned, and where they will venture next. Learn more about the Summit, and come back to this magazine for more exploration of donor journeys and why they matter. And if you have a story and useful lessons to share, please let us know!

Photo: Michael Moody, Ph.D.Michael Moody, Ph.D., is the Frey Foundation Chair for Family Philanthropy at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy. The Frey Foundation Chair is the world’s first-ever endowed chair for family philanthropy, and Dr. Moody became the first holder of the chair in 2010.

Dr. Moody serves as an accessible guide to the rapidly evolving and complex landscape of philanthropy and social innovation, helping diverse audiences see the vital role that giving plays in society, and expanding both the practice and understanding of family philanthropy. He straddles the worlds of scholarship and practice, shining a light on the connections between giving and lived experience with both expertise and enthusiasm. Read more about Dr. Moody here.


  1. Reply
    Anne C Petersen says

    I established Global Philanthropy Alliance in 2006 when leaving the WK Kellogg Foundation, having been inspired by the staff of the Africa program to fund work in Africa. After taking a couple years talking with colleagues in global philanthropy, we launched a public foundation. I would be happy to discuss our journey and learning.

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