The “Polaroid” Donor | Sharpe Group
Posted February 1st, 2012

The “Polaroid” Donor

by Robert F. Sharpe Jr.

A board member for a client asked me recently why the term “development” is often used to describe fundraising activities. I realized I had never seriously thought about it. Like many others, I had routinely used the term as a synonym for fundraising.

Thousands of people in the U.S. have the term “development” in their titles. There are directors of development, vice presidents for development, development officers and so on.

After a little study I found that “development” is actually a much older term than “fundraising.” In the educational world of the 1920s, development was used to describe a broader range of activities designed to further the interests of a nonprofit; fundraising was just one of the activities under the development rubric1. More recently, “advancement” has emerged as a broader term for what was in past years under the umbrella of development.

Who cares?

Why does it matter? After some reflection, I realized the board member might be wondering who was being developed—him or the institution? This may be an increasingly important question as donors, especially those who are wealthier and more sophisticated and serve as fundraising volunteers, are beginning to understand more about the data collection and analysis processes that underlie the cultivation and stewardship of donors—including themselves.

America’s nonprofits are increasingly being stress-tested by continually changing economic and demographic realities that are shaking the foundations of all of our institutions. Many are beginning to wonder openly if the post-World War II approaches to raising funds and “developing donors” will work in what appears to be a coming period of slower wealth creation—and with donors who make more careful and thoughtful choices.

Will traditional approaches to “developing” donors, such as peer-based initiatives, public recognition for gifts, overreliance on tax incentives and other all-purpose motivators that are divorced from an underlying understanding of the true nature of an organization’s mission, continue to work? Can charities continue to operate under the assumption that many people won’t want to give unless we immerse them in “development baths” until the picture we want to see slowly emerges?

Enter the Polaroid Donor

Many donors, major and minor, have simply had all the development they can stand—whether it is relentless direct mail, phone calls at dinner time on several consecutive nights, solicitations by peers to whom they owe favors, invitations to events and on and on.

This is not to say that millions of people don’t enjoy making gifts and will continue to do so even in challenging economic times. They will, however, in many cases consider their gift options more carefully, do their research using online services with their ready access to 990 forms and other information, and then decide which organizations they wish to support—all outside the spotlight of high-profile development activities. These people make up the ranks of what can be termed the “Polaroid Donors.” Simply put, they “develop” themselves and often avoid fanfare and recognition after they give—and in some cases don’t even wish to be thanked, visited by staff or engaged in any way.

Industry press has noted the rise of anonymous giving since the unfortunate events of 2008 and the succeeding years (see list of resources on Page 7.) From an historical perspective, there is nothing new about this.

In 1914, in the wake of a severe economic downturn that began with the financial crisis of 1908, The New York Times observed a “Rise in Anonymous Giving.” Kevin Phillips noted in his book, “Wealth and Democracy,” that the wealthy went “underground” in the 1930s and didn’t engage in public displays of wealth again until the 1960s. See Give & Take, August 2009 ( for an analysis of reasons, other than the desire for privacy, that prompt donors to give anonymously.

What to do

Does this mean that we should abandon “development” strategies as we know them? Of course not.

Does this mean, though, that many baby boomers who are now entering their prime philanthropic years and members of the Silent Generation ahead of them may not readily welcome “development” as we have come to understand it? I think the answer is yes.

Don’t be surprised if many baby boomer philanthropists turn out to be donors who want to take a more active role in the fundraising process. Many have always marched to the beat of their own drums. They will research candidates for their charitable gifts just as charities are researching them! These are the children of the 1960s. Many are still rebels at heart who reluctantly cut their hair and did what they had to do to survive, raise families and “succeed.” But now many baby boomers who did, in fact, succeed are in a position to put their money where their mouth was.

They will look for organizations that are truly fulfilling their deepest aspirations. They will look for the means to extend themselves. They worked and stored their energy in the form of money and now they are looking for the best ways to carefully release that energy through gifts that enable others to do things they may have themselves secretly wanted to do. Some will volunteer their time along with gifts of their money—albeit quietly and without fanfare.

Don’t count chickens

Those who encourage bequests and other planned gifts are now increasingly realizing it will be decades before the baby boomers are ready to make the last wills that will serve to distribute their property at death to charitable and non-charitable heirs.

The oldest boomers will not pass away, on average, for 20 years or more. Despite hyperbole and hype designed to sell Internet communication channels that work best with relatively younger donors, there will be no “bequest boom” any time soon.

For those whose role includes encouraging charitable bequests, the next several years will be devoted to working with the last survivors of the GI Generation. The following 15 years will then be occupied by the Silent Generation, born between roughly 1927 and 1945. The latter group is a generational cohort that is even less likely to want to be “developed” than the baby boomers.

Experience shows that the children of the Depression and World War II who make up the Silent Generation are more reluctant in many cases to reveal their intentions. To do so would commit them to a course of action that, in times of uncertainty, they believe they may need to change in the future.

We may have to face the fact that in many cases what worked in planned and major gift work for the past 30 years as we have catered to the “joiners” and more peer-reflective GI Generation is not likely to work as well with those coming after them.

The 65 to 80-year-olds on whom we will be relying for bequests and other planned gifts for the next 20 years don’t always respond to planned giving marketing materials in the same way as the more trusting generation that came before them or the more curious baby boomers following them. In fact, from a planned gift perspective, we may be dealing with an entirely new group of donors: a majority “Polaroid” generation.

A new way of thinking

This cautious group of donors may be more reluctant to reveal their intentions and engage as willing participants in the “development” process. How do we work with this group? We meet them on their territory.

They don’t want you to develop them; they want you to see who they are and the picture they have envisioned as a response to what they have discovered about who you are and what you do.

You may spend more time thanking those who are receptive than asking these donors. Rather than telling them why they should give more, ask why they have chosen to give what they have already given. Listen to them when they express a desire to give more—and listen when they explain why they don’t think they can.

Will they make gifts as part of their estates? Absolutely. Will they tell you? In many cases, no. It is not unusual to know about fewer than one out of five charitable bequests in advance. Keeping bequest intentions private may continue to be the norm as it has been for the 30 years I have observed this field.

Many organizations were sold on marketing bequests to 70-year-olds 15 years ago when they were 55. Those people will have had 60 or more exposures to planned giving content from many organizations by age 70. And keep in mind they still have a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years! Most bequests come from people who make their last will between age 75 and 90. Those who doubt this may want to check the age at will in the case of bequests received in recent months or years.

So, should we shut down the “planned giving” components of our development efforts? Of course not. But it is now a new day. Our goal as “fundraisers” or “development professionals,” or whatever nomenclature we adopt, is to be sure our organizations are top of mind when an attorney asks an 80-year-old considering his last will, “Have your charitable interests changed?” In the seconds that transpire after that question is asked, you want to be favorably mentioned.

For the minority who choose to tell you what they have done, develop them to your—and their—heart’s content. For the rest, thank them for their current gifts as often as you can, recognize their long-term allegiance, wait for the donors to develop themselves and be there for them if and when they choose to share their “picture” with you.

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The publisher of Sharpe Insights is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Sharpe Insights may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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