Gift Capacity, the debate continues

We’ve been having the regular debate on gift capacity. We are researching Mrs Philanthropist, and we ask ourselves, again, how much might she donate to The Good Charity?

Cecilia Hogan, in her excellent Prospect Research: A Primer for Growing Nonprofits (Jones and Bartlett, Mass, 2004) defines capacity as:

The financial measure of a prospect’s ability to give a major gift

and then reviews measures of wealth and interest.

Many prospect researchers use formulae to calculate gift capacity. The prospect research team at Southern Illinois University Foundation gathered a collection of these formulae in 2006. And there is a log-in site – AskAnalyzer – which uses a

sophisticated algorithm that estimates the total giving capacity of your donors and prospects over five years and provides an ask range for your organization specifically.

These formulae, as David Lamb points out on his blog

are passed from researcher to researcher like alchemical lore.

Elizabeth Crabtree and Joyce Newton gave a brilliant and thorough presentation on this topic in the September 2007 APRA conference – pointing out that there is a lot we simply cannot know about an individual (her tax filings, her debts and liabilities etc) and arguing for clearer terminology, and the use of estimates based on a range. They distinguished between gift capacity rating systems that are derived from combining known assets to estimate total wealth, and those that are derived from applying formulae to a specific wealth indicator (such as the value of a person’s home.) They sensibly suggest that researchers test formulae against recent major gifts to their own organisation, to find the most appropriate formulae for that specific organisation. They argue for measuring gift capacity, then discounting for affinity and inclination.

Jen Filla at Aspire Group, a prospect research company in the USA, wrote a useful paper on the topic of capacity formulas in 2009. She defined a ‘capacity rating’ as

a major gift dollar range for a gift over 5 years if only one gift was made.

She cautions that this is strictly based on wealth indicators and not affinity or inclination and that it does not consider unknown liabilities. Jen reminds us that a capacity rating is NOT a solicitation amount.

In the same year, 2009, I made a presentation to the Researchers in Fundraising meeting on this topic at the Natural History Museum, London. I argued that we needed two measures, a ‘Gift Rating’ measure estimated rapidly using formulae, near the start of the prospect research process, and a ‘Gift Capacity’ measure, estimated by reviewing all the data on a prospect, toward the end of the research process. The Gift Rating measure acts as a filter – if the initial, rapid, assessment indicates that the prospect has wealth then she passes on through the filter to further research.

Like Jen, I argued for Gift Capacity to be based on wealth indicators and NOT on affinity or inclination. In other words, Gift Capacity measures how much Mrs Philanthropist could give to her absolutely favourite cause, in absolutely perfect conditions. Gift Capacity, if you’ll excuse the tautology, is the person’s absolute capacity. Defined like this, Gift Capacity allows researchers to compare like with like, and to prioritise prospects. After we have an idea of absolute capacity we can discount from that amount by reviewing their motivations, connection and readiness, and on that basis come to a solicitation amount (the amount we will ask the person to donate.)

Reviewing my presentation I would now make one change. I had defined Gift Capacity as ‘The largest total gift that one person can give to any one cause, in ideal conditions, in one year.’ In hindsight, I prefer Jen’s measure over 5 years.

So, my definitions would be:

  • Gift Rating: a standardised formulae-based initial assessment of a prospect’s potential giving range
  • Gift Capacity: The largest total gift that one person could give to any one cause, in ideal conditions, over five years.

No, this is not the definitive text on this subject and yes, please, I’d like to debate this with you. Email me at, and let the discussion continue.

Fifty percent of the population -five percent of the money

The US Foundation Center and Mama Cash, the Netherlands-based women’s fund have published a report on European foundation giving for women and girls (Untapped Potential: European Foundation Funding for Women and Girls, EFC and Mama Cash, Brussels 2011, available at


145 foundations from 19 countries took part in the survey (136 responded to the questionnaire), controlling an estimated €9.2 billion in assets. The research team describe the study as ‘exploratory’, citing the lack of overall market data on which to base sector-wide conclusions. The team used a mixture of questionnaire, grants sampling and analysis and interviews to gather their data.

Women and Girls

The report starts with the assertion that investing in women and girls is now the mainstream mode for NGOs and other development funders. It cites The Economist, 26 April 2006: Forget China, India and the Internet: economic growth is driven by women. And then it poses the question:

are European foundations providing funding for women and girls?

The answer is a depressing ‘no’. The median percentage of total foundation grant monies allocated for women and girls is only 4.8%. Fifty percent of the population get 5% of the money.

By contrast 90% of the foundations surveyed said that they were interested in at least one aspect of grant-making for women and girls. But that is a big gap between aspiration and reality, with most foundations allocating less than 10% of their grants to women and girls. The survey reports similar findings in analyses of foundation grant-making in the USA – a surprising result given the substantial number of women-led foundations in the US.


Violence against women, poverty among women and girls, and women’s and girls’ access to education emerged as the top three issues of interest to European foundations. While other issues were of less interest (lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, and women’s and girls’ access to media, for example) the differences between the most popular and least popular topics was relatively small. In other words, foundations that support women and girls cover a wide range of interests. The authors then go on to measure the degree to which these interests are intentional, forming part of the DNA of the foundation. They found that 19% of foundations mentioned women and girls in their mission statement, and that these foundations had a tendency to support human rights and social justice initiatives.

The foundations that have been successful in supporting women and girls have taken a proactive stance on the subject, recruiting leadership who understand the importance of giving to women and girls, organising training programmes for staff, offering a flexible approach to grant-making and a focus on data and impacts.

The Wider Picture

The survey, one of very few broad surveys of European foundations, is useful also for the wider picture it paints of the sector. This type of overview data is vital in helping philanthropists and foundations to build strategies for partnership. The survey points out, for example, that the giving of 34% of foundations is internationally focused, and describes the link between geographic location and the grant-making patterns of foundations, with Northern European foundations less likely to support work with women and girls than those in Southern Europe. This seems counter-intuitive, but the authors reason that it may be the result of the stronger social policies favouring women and girls in Nordic countries, leaving foundations with less to do.

Grant-Making Patterns

The research team have done a good job of analysing grant-making patterns by geography, by target group and by foundation size. They show, for example, that the most favoured target group for foundations in Europe is children and youth, followed by the poor, people with disabilities and the elderly. Women and girls come 5th in the list of priorities.

In their analysis of the grants, the researchers have had to rely on relatively few grants � 396 grants for women and girls are analysed, with 306 of these made by foundations in Western Europe, principally, we suspect, grant-making trusts in the UK. So the findings have to be viewed with care. 45% of these grants go to human service projects, and 21% to human rights. 8% of grants went to health, and to arts and culture. Education got just 4% of the grants to women and girls (despite education being a priority for 73% of the foundations in the study.) An analysis of grants by value is not given.


Five foundations are studied in detail including the Sigrid Rausing Trust in the UK, the Oak Foundation in Switzerland and the King Baudouin Foundation in Belgium, along with one network of foundations, the Learning Bridges Initiative. The review looks at the decision making processes of the foundation in detail, and we can see the results of the interviews in these detailed descriptions.


The authors conclude on a positive note, looking at opportunities to expand and deepen foundation support for women. Frankly, with the median percentage of foundation funding for women and girls at 4.8%, it is hard to argue for anything but growth.

We are concerned with a couple of omissions. First, the research is focused on grants – which leaves us wondering about other forms of finance for women and girls. Microfinance is not analysed, and yet we know that many microcredit programmes are aimed at women. This is a gap that could be covered by future research.

Second, the geographic distribution of the foundations selected for the study means that foundations from all across Europe were surveyed. But there is a caveat – 36 of the 136 respondents were from the UK whereas only two each were from France or Spain, so the overall views expressed will be a bit more Anglo-Saxon than might be desired.

But these are minor criticisms of a well-constructed study relevant to the whole foundation sector in Europe. Weisblatt & associates have done a good job of the research, and we should be thankful to Mama Cash and the Foundation Center for taking the initiative.

What are the practical applications of this study? For philanthropists, it’s a call to action – to link their interest in funding programmes for women and girls to their grant programmes, and to put more money into these programmes. For foundations, it’s a thoughtful picture of where we are, a report that should encourage some reflection. For fundraising organisations it’s a useful guide to the current foundation market, its interests, its current practices and its potential.

The Venture Philanthropists

The UK’s venture philanthropy industry, now nine years old, is worth more than £1.5 billion and provides more than £50 million in support for nonprofits, according to a report issued today by Factary.

But who are the people behind this new wave in philanthropy?

Factary’s report, ‘The Venture Philanthropists – A Review of Venture Philanthropy funds in the UK and the people behind them,’ focuses on the 135 trustees, donors, patrons and board members in the UK VP sector, including brief biographies on each. Over half of the trustees come from the financial sector – with 29% coming from the private equity industry, a key target audience for many nonprofits. Many are wealthy – we identify more than £5.2 billion in personal wealth in the report.

Factary’s team has analysed the UK venture philanthropy sector, identifying the eleven key funds, reviewing their areas of interest, their finances and the people involved. We review the spectacular growth in investment income in the sector and look in detail at the £51.8m in charitable grants, loans and investments made by the sector.

The report – 70 pages of newly researched information – includes a detailed index of corporate and trust connections. The report details the trends in the sector, as well as giving background on venture philanthropy – history, definition and key features. Download a contents list here.

How to Order

To order a report email with your contact details. The report is available at £125 per copy.

The report is featured in UK Fundraising and there is an interview with Chris Carnie at Helen Brown Group. We’re also featured at Philanthropy UK.