An Unexpected Gift from Donors

… donors’ opinions on the impact of a severe recession on their philanthropy


I have spent the last month engrossed in the findings of our research study on the impact of the economy on philanthropy.  In January, almost 22,000 American donors told us how their giving has been changing in recent years, how the economy is affecting their charitable contributions, and what is in store for them – and you – in 2009.

I was reviewing the thick data report (we asked donors a lot of questions) trying to isolate a few findings that I could share with you in this blog, but my eyes kept wandering past the data to the thousands of comments that donors also offered.

These comments have captured something that raw data or percentages cannot.  They tell the story of what donors are facing; they speak of trauma, heartache and even good fortune.  And they underscore Americans’ determination to give in spite of hardship, or their deep regret if they have to cut back on their philanthropy.  Many included a phrase like, “Please let not-for-profits know that….” as if this survey were an opportunity for them to send a message directly to you.

Later this week I fly to Seattle, then to San Francisco, to present the first two of ten seminars on Philanthropy in a Turbulent Economy. (see sidebar for cities and dates.) I will be unveiling the findings of this research to development professionals, CEOs and leadership volunteers and discussing how to sustain a healthy fundraising operation in this severe economy.  I hope you can join me.  In the meantime, here’s something from donors to make your Monday, and all that you are contending with in this economy, a little easier…

The joy I experience from giving to the organizations I choose to support is indescribable. I am glad I have the opportunity to give!


While I do not make nearly as much as some people, I have plenty. Giving teaches me to be grateful for what I have. When I give to someone with less, it helps me realize I do not have to have all the latest gadgets, clothes, cars and other consumer items. Less can be more.


People around the world are in so much more need.  I traveled to Poland this year to see family and I kept hearing how people in the USA have so much more than do people in other countries, and that our government gives its citizens so much. I was told that we should appreciate what we have. I also found out how poor my family was. For example, my grandfather’s family would share shoes. I was embarrassed by the fact that my family in Poland lived what it really meant to be Christian, while I, with much more resources, gave so little. Now, I am not rich, by any means. We have lost some of our retirement investments and we have already downsized almost everything. We are just middle-of-the-road people.  But, we have and use too much while the world starves and we look away. The world is dying and we still look away!


Even in an economic downturn, we are the richest nation in the world. I will share whatever I have. I have traveled to third world countries and they shared whatever they had with me. If not us/me, then who? I follow the Universal Law that the more you give, the more you receive.


We have a warm home and food to eat, good health, a loving family. We are more than just comfortable. As we look at the world around us, both in the United States and in countries around the world, we see that we have been blessed with the important gifts of life in a world in which most have so little. I believe it is part of our responsibility as people to help those who are less fortunate, and when possible, to do that in a way that will grow beyond helping one person to helping families, and communities to improve and help one another. I don’t mean “responsibility” to sound like a job or a burden. I just believe that we must help others in the world. If we have a little, perhaps we need to share what we can; if we have a lot, we need to share more, much more.


I give and will give more because I realize that there will be no peace on this planet until all life is valued and, by extension, all people are cared for.


I have lived through plenty of hard times as a wage-earner, beginning in my mid-teens, and I know what a positive difference even a tiny bit of help can make–it means somebody notices, somebody cares and somebody is willing to go out of their way to support and encourage. Now that I am more prosperous than I ever expected to be (frankly, I expected to be dead before I ever got close to being the age I am now,) I know that my giving up a few meals out in a month could make a big difference for somebody out there. I really can’t resist that opportunity. Five bucks can make a difference to a number of local nonprofits I see around me; volunteer time can mean a local institution succeeds where it could have failed and, thus, will be there when the community needs it. I believe in community.


Even while I struggle to make rent, people in other countries struggle for water; I cannot justify stopping my support even though I am hurting myself.  And, I send monthly gift boxes to the troops.  As long as there are people who are risking their lives everyday I have to send something so they know we know their lives count (even if I don’t agree with the politics.)


Even though I don’t have a lot to give, I have more than others. And, it’s a lot more than I had ten years ago when I was counting pocket change in order to have enough money for gas to get to work and feed four kids. I am very blessed to have what I have and I need to share it with others.


I am fortunate to be well above the poverty level. To not give during somewhat difficult times when my lifestyle is not changing much would be selfish beyond words. I know there are people and projects that need my support more now than ever.


This past year I traveled to Indonesia and saw what a difference there is in terms of opportunity (or the lack thereof) and how people live on very little. Even though the economy is bad here, it is worse there and a few dollars make a big difference in people’s lives. If I could find relief/nonprofit organizations working specifically in that country, donating there would be my priority. As it is, I now understand what a difference my contribution makes and I am glad I can do it.


When the end of my life comes, it won’t matter what I have in material goods; it will matter what I did to help others. In our society, our values are showcased by where we put our dollars.


It is up to me to be a good role model to my family and to reinforce that no matter how little we THINK we might have.  Others get by with next to nothing and our lives are abundantly blessed in this country. Giving is an integral part of an attitude of abundance.


There are so many hurting people and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We’re going to see people act in ways we’ve never seen before.


If one person is dying of thirst, malnutrition, or exposure, if one person is forced to remain ignorant, all of us suffer an irreparable loss.


Not for profits are the most effective way to reach those who are suffering in my community — the hungry, the homeless, and the abused.


Though we are technically (and literally) living below the “poverty line,” I feel that it is important to stretch my dollars while still helping others. A donation gift in honor of the recipient is a perfect solution. I just received a “thank you” note from my 19-year old niece. She was so touched by our gift to her through an International not-for-profit that she is going to try to get her sorority involved with that organization. Her note brought tears to my eyes. Her reaction was the BEST Christmas gift I have ever received.


At times like this, when my financial situation is threatened…it is difficult to trust my heart.  My head gets in the way and tells me to be “practical” and “hold back.”  Collectively, if we are all doing that, we are in danger.  I must trust my heart…regardless of the economic situation…and continue to give. Be it time or money – whatever I have.  And, it would be a great service to the world to lead by example.  Trust my gut and move my feet – even when I am afraid.

Showing 13 comments
  • Janet Huerta

    Brought tears to my eyes. As a donor, I believe in the generosity and abundance and responsibility themes expressed in the comments but it is so affirming to hear others express those sentiments. Makes my spirit soar!

  • Anne Wunsch

    Thank you for sharing these comments. I must admit they brought tears to my eyes. It reinforces the quote” we make a life by what we give.” I hope that I will live up to the best of these personal philosophies. I plan to share these with my donors too. All the best. Anne

  • Erica Calvert

    This is incredibly encouraging. People keep asking us how we’re doing, and I haven’t noticed much difference since last year, and this is why. Donors still want to contribute and they still find what we do important.

  • Vincent Duckworth


    Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful gift with all of us on this Monday morning. We truly are blessed to work in such an amazing field.

    Thanks again for your sessions in Banff–both very well received.

    Safe travels.

  • Anne Rowlands

    I’m so glad I took a moment to read these. They were a wonderful testament to solid bedrock lying under shifting sands.

  • Heather

    How deeply touching that these folks felt compelled to let non-profits know their thoughts and feelings right now. It’s so encouraging as a non-profit leader to read those words. It’s fuel to keep going, despite everything. Thanks for sharing with all of us!

  • McClain Bybee

    Thank you for the Monday morning lift! The donors’ comments from your research are confirmed by the wonderful donors we too are blessed to work with. Their generosity is hard to understand when one uses only their head. Philanthropy comes from the “heart.”

  • Gail Meltzer

    Your work has always been important, compelling and eye-opening, never moreso than now. Thank you for undertaking this study and sharing these heartfelt comments.

  • Kathy Skidmore

    I am elated to see these messages of commitment and hope. I truly believe communities will take care of those in the greatest need especially when times are bad, and have seen that happening locally. Thank you for doing this study and the encouraging reminder to trust the good hearts of our donors.

  • Vernon Rose

    Penelope – I found it interesting that the quotes included here held so much focus for third world situations. I was on the staff of a non-profit which offered your survey to our donors and your feedback during our webinar following the conclusion held some poignant numbers that will change, I hope, how donors and nonprofits view each other moving forward. Perhaps, it takes a world-wide financial mess to bring focus to at-home needs. Thanks for your great work in our field.

  • Jay

    Interesting stuff. It has taught me however that while your study may be interesting, it is not a discussion with my donors. We should all realize that instead of sitting and listening to what some donors have said, we should be in front of our supporters at our organizations hearing their thoughts and stories…only then can we act with thoughtful strategy

  • Rose Norris

    Dear Penny,

    Thanks for sharing donor’s comments. They pull at my heartstrings. It’s not surprising, considering that when things get tough, most often than not, people rise to the occasion and help one another. I have great faith in humanity and donors are no exception. Those who are struggling may choose not to give, others are donating more, since they feel the demand is greater. It all balances out in the end.
    Again, thanks Penny.



    I was very poor as a child. These responses highlight even more how much I need to increase my giving now that my income is wildly beyond my dreams. I have no need of more, but so many do. Thanks for the incentive to increase our giving.

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