Two (very different) kinds of donors by Duncan_Sabien

This post de­scribes a very sim­ple and very im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion be­tween two kinds of donors/​two kinds of dona­tions.

I apol­o­gize if the con­tent of this (short) post is ob­vi­ous to you. Re­peated ex­pe­rience has led me to be­lieve that it is not ob­vi­ous to many peo­ple, and can some­times be some­thing of an epiphany for them, so it seems worth shar­ing in link­able form. A dis­agree­ment that is tightly analo­gous to this one is cur­rently wreck­ing my par­ents’ mar­riage, for in­stance, and they each in­de­pen­dently found this to be a con­cretely use­ful metaphor.


There are (at least) two very differ­ent kinds of donors, and they give very differ­ent kinds of dona­tions, and they do not always tag them­selves or their dona­tions as such. In part, this is be­cause many peo­ple are un­aware that [the other kind of donor] ex­ists at all, and so they don’t know that they need to iden­tify them­selves as be­ing of a par­tic­u­lar type. Both types, in my ex­pe­rience, as­sume them­selves to be the de­fault.


The first kind of donor is donat­ing to the mis­sion. They at­tend a CFAR work­shop, for in­stance, and en­joy them­selves im­mensely, and be­lieve that the ex­pe­rience will be valuable for oth­ers. They want [more of that], so they donate to CFAR.

Whether they say so ex­plic­itly or not, they are donat­ing to cause [more of that]. They be­lieve and ex­pect that their money will be used in ways which are leg­ibly about caus­ing [more of that]. Thus, while they may not ac­tu­ally ear­mark their dona­tion in any par­tic­u­lar way, if CFAR’s books were to be­come pub­lic, they would ex­pect to see ex­pen­di­tures like:

  • Venue costs

  • Food and cater­ing costs

  • Sub­sidies for promis­ing work­shop attendees

  • Salaries for in­struc­tors and other staff

  • Con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion for in­struc­tors and re­searchers (e.g. con­fer­ence fees, pro­gram tu­ition, travel ex­penses di­rectly re­lated to such)

  • Staff re­treats (for cur­ricu­lum de­vel­op­ment)

I call these donors “leg­ibles.”

The sec­ond kind of donor is donat­ing to an agent. They at­tend a CFAR work­shop, for in­stance, and en­joy them­selves im­mensely, and be­lieve that the ex­pe­rience will be valuable for oth­ers. They think to them­selves “the peo­ple who caused this to hap­pen are do­ing some­thing good in the world. I want to see more stuff like this. I want to un­lock these peo­ple, so that they are free to pur­sue their am­bi­tions.”

Whether they say so ex­plic­itly or not, they are del­e­gat­ing. They be­lieve and ex­pect that the peo­ple they’ve given money to will be bet­ter at us­ing that money than they would them­selves (at least for those par­tic­u­lar marginal dol­lars). They have no par­tic­u­lar ex­pec­ta­tions about how their money will be spent.

I call these donors “pa­trons.”


Imag­ine that for some rea­son, an or­ga­ni­za­tion like CFAR uses donor dol­lars to pur­chase fifty rub­ber dil­dos.

(This ex­am­ple is de­liber­ately cho­sen to be a spe­cific kind of “out­ra­geous.” To be clear, noth­ing like this ever hap­pened with CFAR money to the best of my knowl­edge; this is a hy­po­thet­i­cal and I’m us­ing CFAR as my ex­am­ple org sim­ply be­cause I worked there (and learned about the dis­tinc­tion be­tween differ­ent kinds of donors while work­ing there).)

Leg­ibles, if they dis­cover this fact, will be shocked. They may very well feel per­son­ally be­trayed. They may de­mand an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and in their cul­ture they are en­tirely cor­rect to do so. If they dis­cover mul­ti­ple other pur­chases that are similarly wildly di­vorced from “the sorts of things one would rea­son­ably ex­pect are in­volved in de­vel­op­ing and run­ning ap­plied ra­tio­nal­ity work­shops,” they may de­mand their money back, or call for the firing of var­i­ous ex­ec­u­tives, or launch a cam­paign to have CFAR dis­solved.

Pa­trons will not be shocked. They may be cu­ri­ous. They will very likely be con­fused. But their over­all re­sponse will be “I have no idea what CFAR needed fifty rub­ber dil­dos for … some kind of so­cial ex­per­i­ment? … but any­way, I trust that there’s a rea­son, and I don’t feel the need to go chas­ing af­ter it.”

They might lose this faith if it later turns out that they hear the rea­son, and it doesn’t make sense af­ter the fact, es­pe­cially if this hap­pens three or four times. But even then, they will tend to sim­ply stop donat­ing money, as op­posed to feel­ing ac­tively be­trayed and want­ing some form of resti­tu­tion. They’re start­ing from a prior of “this money will be well-spent by virtue of the fact that the per­son spend­ing it is wise and rea­son­able in the ways I care about.” They ex­pect ev­ery bit as much re­spon­si­bil­ity as the first donor, but they do not ex­pect leg­i­bil­ity.

Leg­ibles be­lieve they are, in essence, mak­ing a pur­chase. Turn­ing dol­lars into CFAR work­shops, or ra­tio­nal­ity es­says writ­ten, or birds-saved-from-oil-spills, or doc­tors-paid-to-cure-di­a­betes.

Pa­trons be­lieve they are mak­ing an in­vest­ment. They are gam­bling, in the same way that one gam­bles when one puts money into a small tech startup. They are hop­ing for some­thing great, and will be only nor­mal amounts of dis­ap­pointed if what they get in re­turn is noth­ing.


If you are seek­ing dona­tions, or grants, or fund­ing of any kind, it be­hooves you to know which kind you are seek­ing.

If you are giv­ing dona­tions, or grants, or fund­ing of any kind, it’s helpful to know, and to be able to clearly state, which kind you are offer­ing.

A given per­son can be ei­ther kind on differ­ent days, or when giv­ing dol­lars to differ­ent peo­ple or differ­ent pro­jects.

A lot of mi­s­un­der­stand­ings and dis­ap­point­ments can be solved with clear(er) and (more) ac­cu­rate ex­pec­ta­tions.

Two (very different) kinds of donors by Duncan_Sabien