Research & Writing


The Giving Habits of Mid Level Donors

In collaboration with the Boston College School of Social Work

Read the Chronicle of Philanthropy article on this survey

Individual Americans donated $310 billion to charity in 2019.  Almost half this sum came from donors who earned under $200,000*.  Yet little is known about the needs and behavior of Small (who give under $1,000 a year) and Midlevel donors (who give between $2,000 and $20,000 a year).

Sylvia Brown conducts research and writes regularly about this overlooked and underserved demographic, particularly Midlevel donors who earn between $100,000 and $2000,000 annually. She has identified a noticeable shift in giving behavior at $150,000 in annual income, a level considerably below the minimum considered “High Net Worth” and well below the earnings required for access to the philanthropy advisory services of private banks or consultants.

Sylvia’s research shows that Small and Midlevel donors care deeply about their giving and are eager to learn how to be more effective – so long as this requires a minimal investment in time and money. To this end, Sylvia developed Smart Donors… Make a Difference, a simple, engaging curriculum to equip individual donors with tools to make smarter decisions.

*Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2019

Sylvia’s research is of particularly interest to advisors of mid-size clients looking to improve their customer relations at minimal cost. 

Sep 29, 2020

Philanthropy’s Missing Middle Characteristics of MidLevel Donors (part 5)

In this fifth and final analysis of the Boston College survey of 1,260 Mid-Level donors (who gave between $2,000 and…

Aug 24, 2020

Philanthropy’s Missing Middle Characteristics of MidLevel Donors (part 4)

In this fourth article of the “Philanthropy’s Missing Middle” series on the Boston College Survey of MidLevel Donors, we will…

Jul 28, 2020

Philanthropy’s Missing Middle Characteristics of MidLevel Donors (part 3)

The first two articles in my “Philanthropy’s Missing Middle” series on results from the Boston College Survey of MidLevel Donors…

Jul 23, 2020

Philanthropy’s Missing Middle – Characteristics of MidLevel Donors (part 2)

Since the birth of our nation, charitable giving has been a defining characteristic of Americans at all socio-economic levels.  But…

Jul 23, 2020

Philanthropy’s Missing Middle Characteristics of MidLevel Donors (part 1)

The “missing middle” is a term used in a variety of contexts that can also be applied to philanthropy. While…


May 31, 2021

As Donors Return to Old Patterns of Giving, Here’s How to Ensure Nonprofits Get the Resources They Need

     From The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 24, 2021 As America begins to reopen and the economic forecast brightens,…

May 19, 2019

It May Be Time To Rethink Your Annual College Donation

This article was co-authored with Ayele Shakur, CEO of BUILD, my Encore Public Voices Fellowship colleague - First appeared on…

Feb 15, 2019

From The Chronicle of Philanthropy: All Donors Need More Education — Not Just the Wealthy

OPINION FEBRUARY 12, 2019 PREMIUM All Donors Need More Education — Not Just the Wealthy By Sylvia Brown PETE RYAN…

Feb 02, 2019

Why Donor Education is so Badly Needed….

To better inform my new online course “Smarter Donors… Make a Difference,” I conducted market research using  I asked…

Jan 28, 2019

The Joy That Comes from Smarter Giving – a recipe for greater donor (and client) satisfaction

The American College of Financial Services asked me to contribute a piece to the quarterly newsletter of the Chartered Advisor in…

Jan 07, 2019

Giving to Aging Causes is Investing in YOUR Future Self

My time as an Encore Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project has opened my eyes to the reality that aging…

Nov 27, 2018

Five Ways To Give With More Impact This Holiday Season

Last year, individual donors gave $280 billion to 1.5 million non-profits. The vast majority of Americans claim to care about…

Nov 27, 2018

Encouraging News in the Fight Against Poverty and Inequality

Since 2008, the portion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $1.90 a…

Nov 27, 2018

What Can Be Done About Modern Slavery and Trafficking?

I often am asked about my 18th century ancestors who were prosperous merchants when slave trading fueled the Atlantic economy. …

Nov 27, 2018

Another Rhode Island First

Last year, $41 billion were given to America’s universities.  Donors fund higher education for many reasons, but most are rooted…

Nov 27, 2018

Skeletons in the Closet

When I was 18, I experienced my first drive with a police escort going to my grandfather’s funeral.  “Rhode Island’s…


Grappling With Legacy

– Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse

What fuels a family’s compulsion for philanthropy?


When Sylvia Brown’s father handed much of his inheritance to Brown University in 1995, the gesture maintained a 300-year family philanthropic tradition. Less than a decade later, the University launched its Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice at whose inaugural symposium one speaker declared “there were no good Browns.” Grappling With Legacy was born of the juxtaposition between these starkly opposed perspectives.

Sylvia has delved into one of the country’s largest family archives to understand what fuels a multi-generational compulsion to giving: Self-interest? A feeling of guilt? A sense of genuine altruism? The Brown family mirrors America’s evolving urge to do good — from colonial era charity, to reformist initiatives in the Early Republic, to the philanthropy of the Gilded Age, to social impact investing today.

Set against the distinctive backdrop of Rhode Island, this rich family saga provides a fresh perspective on a frequently overlooked era surprisingly akin to the present day, characterized by economic dislocation, partisan politics, and growing social disparities. Out of this age of unrest emerged America’s philanthropic impulse, which has become such an intrinsic part of our national ethos.

Sylvia’s tale is anchored around Nicholas Brown II (1769-1841), an emotionally complex individual who lived during a fascinating but troubled era when the new nation was defining itself. In him, we find the timeless tensions between a yearning for order and a concern for those less fortunate; between resistance to changing times and radical ideas for improving society; between authoritarian parents and defiant children. Distressed by the turmoil of the times, he poured his wealth into institutions intended to provide society with a moral compass. Above all, he pioneered the modern notion of a university as a force for good.

Praise For The Book

“This is a fascinating and intellectually honest work about a remarkable family that has played a major role in the history of Providence and Rhode Island. Sylvia Brown has made a tremendous contribution in writing this wonderful book.”​

President of Carnegie Corporation of New York,
Former President of Brown University

“A splendid work of history—an honest, clearly written, and solidly based account of the private and public lives through four centuries of one of America’s most important and fascinating families.”

Pulitzer Prize for History,
Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus – Brown University