Digest No. 05 - October 2018

Implications of Identity-Based Fundraising

Drezner, N. D. 2018. “Philanthropic Mirroring: Exploring Identity-Based Fundraising in Higher Education.” The Journal of Higher Education 89 (3): 261–293.


As financial issues challenge college and university leadership, research on advancement and fundraising is becoming increasingly important. This study explores the relationship between fundraising and the social identity of the fundraiser. With data derived from the National Alumni Giving Experiment (NAGE), the author establishes correlations between the act of fundraising, the social identity of the fundraiser, the social identity of the students profiled in fundraising solicitations, and the amount of money donors give to the institution.
Adopting a framework that merges social identity theory with philanthropic giving, the author draws from a subfield he refers to as “identity-based fundraising (see Drezner & Huehls, 2014)” (p. 262) to suggest that donors’ social identities play extremely important roles in their decisions to give and how much to give. Extending this argument, the author suggests social identity may be one of the most important factors in fundraising from not only the perspective of the person making the donation and the person asking for the donation, but in the ways institutions present and discuss students as stewards of the institutional message. With these perspectives in mind, the author develops what he refers to as the philanthropic mirroring framework, “in which the prospective donor sees a reflection of himself or herself in the profile of the recipient” (p. 267).
The author used an experiment (the NAGE) he designed to test this framework and two subsequent hypotheses: first, that “respondents sharing at least one marginalized identity with the student profiled in the solicitation letter will perceive the cause as more important and will be more likely to increase their gift than other respondents” (p. 268) and second, that “respondents sharing at least one privileged identity with the student profiled in the solicitation letter will perceive the cause as more important and will be more likely to increase their gift than other respondents” (p. 268). The 1,621 respondents who participated in NAGE had to have graduated from a four-year institution with an academic degree. The average age of respondents was 40.1 years; just under half identified as female (46.0 percent) and most identified as White (76.1 percent). They were randomly assigned fictitious solicitation letters from their alma mater, with versions of the letter varying across the gender, race/ethnicity (White/African American/Latinx), and name (for example, John/Juan, Mary/Maria) of the student.

Two outcome variables were considered for this study. The first measured the importance of the fundraising priority introduced in the letter, and the second assessed the likelihood of giving based on the student’s presented story (for example, “Thinking about your last gift to your undergraduate college or university, would a solicitation highlighting this student’s story lead you this year to give more, less, or the same as last year?” [p. 270]). Models were then constructed predicting these outcomes, with variables designed to measure students’ profile characteristics, respondents’ profile characteristics, and the interaction between them.


The first important result is that prior giving to an institution predicted likelihood of future giving. Just over one-third of respondents (33.5 percent) had been previous donors to their alma mater.

The second noteworthy finding was that the cause articulated in the letter was an important determinant of potential alumni giving. Causes were articulated through four fictitious solicitation letters, which the author summarizes:

“The first version of the solicitation letter described an individual student who is academically high-achieving and to whom the institution has awarded a merit-based scholarship. The second letter described an individual student with a general financial need as a result of the recent market downturn. The third version described an individual student with a financial need related to the student’s first-generation status. The fourth letter described an individual student with a financial need related to a lack of parental support (parents stopped financial support after son/daughter disclosed their sexual orientation).” (pp. 269–270)

Just over half of the respondents (50.7 percent) reported that the cause articulated in the letter was either very or somewhat important to their giving considerations, while 30.0 percent indicated that the cause was unimportant. The remaining 19.2 percent were neutral concerning the importance of the cause to their likelihood of giving.

Another important finding tested the philanthropic mirroring framework. Respondents who shared at least one marginalized identity with, or mirrored, the student profiled in the solicitation letter assigned more importance to supporting the causes described in the letter and were significantly more likely to increase the size of their gift from their previous donation. The shared space of marginalization is what seemed to matter (e.g., Black alumni supporting female students); this was not just a story about “supporting your own” (for instance, Black alumni supporting Black students) (p. 283).


CIC leaders, especially chief development officers, should note the importance of social identities when soliciting donations from alumni and other philanthropists. Results from the study not only demonstrate the importance of a cause to the likelihood of giving, but how that cause is understood by prospective donors based on the gender, race, and name of the student profiled in the solicitation request. Alumni with at least one marginalized identity were more likely to consider the cause articulated in the letter important; they ultimately were more likely to donate more money if the presented student possessed either the same or another marginalized identity.
Campus leaders should consider involving underrepresented students in institutional messaging for advancement efforts. Leaders should consider tailored messaging when soliciting donations from alumni with marginalized identities. Of course, to tailor messaging effectively, educators must understand how students from historically marginalized identities continue to make meaning of their college experiences, especially in light of the current political climate. They should routinely use smart assessment, including sound survey work, focus groups, interviews, and inclusive interpretive partnerships (perhaps involving a diverse taskforce to analyze and make recommendations based on data), to examine diversity climates.

About the Author

Noah D. Drezner is associate professor of higher education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Council for Advancement and Support of Education. 2015. PDF“Increasing Diversity in University Advancement: Lessons from Leading Development Programs.”

Smith, B., S. Shue, J. L. Vest, and J. Villarreal. 1999. Philanthropy in Communities of Color. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gasman, M., N. D. Drezner, E. Epstein, T. Freeman, and V. L. Avery. 2011. Race, Gender, and Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vollman, A. 2015. “Why Diversity Matters: Fundraising.”Insight into Diversity, December 18.