Who’ll Write Me a $1 Million Check?

  • November 26, 2018
  • Because of generous donors, these Texas children got free checkups at an Americares clinic after Hurricane Harvey hindered access to health care. Photo by Annie Mulligan.
  • Michael's Blog
Michael J. Nyenhuis

Michael J. Nyenhuis

Americares President and CEO Michael J. Nyenhuis leads a health-focused relief and development organization that saves lives and improves health for people affected by poverty or disaster.

It is quite a thing to be handed $1 million, especially when it is delivered on the same type of personal check you and I would use to pay a bill. This has happened to me a few times during my years as a nonprofit CEO. The checks weren’t for me, of course. Rather, they were generous donations to the organizations I have led.

What prompts a person to pull out their checkbook and write “$1 million”? That’s a timely question as we begin what in the United States is typically the most active season for philanthropy. More people make personal donations to nonprofits from #GivingTuesday through New Year’s Eve than at any other time of year.

I believe what drives giving is the same whether the check is for $1 million or $10. In my 25 years in the nonprofit sector talking to thousands of donors big and small, I’ve heard the same two primary motivations: First, desire to make the world a better place for others; second, personal satisfaction from giving.

One motivation is outward and altruistic, the other is inward and self-gratifying (in the best sense of that word). Together, these are powerful enough to cause people to exchange their hard-earned dollars for a social good, rather than a product or service that benefits them directly.

That’s my anecdotal, unscientific assessment of the reasons people donate. It matches up well with a great deal of research on the motivations behind individual philanthropy. One survey found that people give for five primary reasons: altruism and egoism (similar to the two motivations I describe above); for social reasons, meaning their donations matter to someone they care about; because they trust the nonprofits they support; and, finally, for tax benefits.

The researchers also found that, for more than 85 percent of charitable donations, people gave because someone asked them to. That, by the way, is why nonprofits have active fundraising departments — we have to ask!

Because of generous donors, this young Liberian mother received pre- and post-natal care at an Americares clinic. Photo by Americares.

Because of generous donors, this young Liberian mother received pre- and post-natal care at an Americares clinic. Photo by Americares.

Two donors I’ve met illustrate the spectrum of motivation for giving.

An older woman living in Chicago gave occasional $25 gifts to support work that brought health services to some of the world’s poorest people. She had very few resources herself, telling me at one point that she had only two pairs of shoes. I assured her she did not need to make those donations if they caused her any financial hardship. She said, no, it was her privilege and responsibility to give because she was better off than so many people around the world.

The second donors handed me one of those $1 million checks. We invest in people, the generous couple told me. They said I had assembled the kind of team they believed could make a real difference in the lives of people in need. Use the money to do that, they said. So we did.

In this season, I hope you have the chance to help change the world and enjoy the warm feeling of satisfaction that comes from giving back.