Good News Tuesday

The fourth annual Cygnus Donor Survey is entering its final week and, already, more donors than ever before have taken part. While I and my staff wait for the survey to close, we have been perusing the thoughtful and often inspirational comments to the question we ask at the end of every research study we conduct: What could unleash your philanthropy at a whole new level?

Even in the worst moments of the recession, close to 50% of donors we surveyed agreed that they could have given more money in the previous year but held their philanthropy back. I am endlessly curious about what it is that prevents donors from giving more and, no doubt, you are too. Of the over 5,000 answers to this question that we have already received this year, I have chosen a few to share with you in this blog. They are not statistically relevant; in other words, I have not drawn a representative sample from the full range of thoughts that donors have offered. For now, I’ve just chosen them because they are interesting and they provide insight into how donors think. Most have been edited for length as donors took me literally when I said that they could write as much as they wanted when answering this question.

So, here you go. Much more will be coming as we move from surveying, to analyzing the data to reporting on what we have found. In the meantime, I’m equally interested in what you think when you read what donors have to say. I do know one thing, though. You will not be able to change donors’ views by asking them to think differently. You will, however, be able to shift donors’ opinions over time by interacting with them differently. The clues are in what they have written, both on the surface and between the lines.

The thing that could unleash my philanthropy at a whole new level is…

…knowing more about how I can help at the community level. Even though our income has declined in the past 3 years, we’ve managed to keep giving at the same level so, in fact, on a percentage basis, our philanthropy has increased. However, our perspective has changed. While there are so many needs on a global scale, charitable work still happens at the community level.

…giving loyal donors feedback about their accumulative giving to a cause over five, ten or even fifteen years. Often donors who make big, one-time gifts are featured and thanked, but other donors like myself who give what we can but do so year after year are not appreciated in the same way. Being reminded of how long I have been giving and what that has added up to over time would, in itself, be a new incentive to giving more.

…having more control over managing my giving through an online portal available on the websites of charities I support. My income and expenses go up and down – a factor of the unstable times we are in. I don’t like having to call up the charities I support every time I need to change my payment plan (pause/ stop/restart/increase/decrease). If I could manage all this directly online, then when I have a financial bonus, like a drop in my mortgage rate, I could quickly increase the value of my gifts to the not-for-profits that I support.

…knowing that the money I give is making a real difference in people’s lives (not just a drop in the ocean of need). For instance, last week some of North America’s top economists said that three of the best ways to help the world’s poorest people financially (in terms of generating the most “bang for your buck”) are 1. clean water, 2. de-worming medication, and 3. mosquito/malaria nets. Learning this makes me very open to donating to organizations that do these things.

…knowing someone personally who is involved in a not-for-profit. This heightens my desire to support them in their work. This is especially so when the person is a volunteer who is passionate about the cause – both my heart and my wallet are more likely to open. That said, I’m also open to giving to a paid employee. I just made a donation to Unicef because their canvasser – who I’m sure was paid – was extremely well-informed as well as very passionate about what Unicef does for children.

…having the names and phone numbers of real people on not-for-profit websites so that I can contact someone if I need information. It would also be good to have the names and photos of Board members on websites because I might know someone and be more inclined to give. The other important thing is to display the physical address of the charity and its operating hours on their website. This gives me confidence that I have not landed on a fraudulent site.

…seeing charities with similar goals come together in a single organization with a unified fundraising program. This would cut down on the barrage of requests from not-for-profits with similar missions. For example, I get separate appeals from various cancer agencies representing Prostate, Breast, Multiple Myeloma, Lymphoma and Leukemia etc. etc. I would be more generous if these organizations cooperated rather than competed with each other.

…knowing that my giving produces results. I have increased my support to Ceasefire in Chicago because they are so good at providing measurable results. Also, I increased my support for my university when someone from the Development Office took me out for coffee to tell me what they have been doing with donors’ contributions. She did not ask for money. I was impressed and became a larger, more regular donor.

…hearing how organizations in disaster relief help people left homeless by fires and other catastrophies. Just last week my grandson and his wife were left with nothing but their pajamas after a devastating fire. The Canadian Red Cross was there within an hour to give them money for clothes and the Knights of Columbus opened their doors to offer a warm place to stay. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, and may God bless all of you!!!

…combining volunteer work, giving and travel. While I understand the challenges in organizing learning excursions for donors, seeing the issues a not-for-profit faces myself would inspire me to give more. Imagine returning home after a “vacation” where I went into a small village to drill water wells and learn about the culture and people that my philanthropy was helping. Amazing!

..having greater confidence that the not-for-profits in which I take an interest really achieve sustainable progress. For example, some NGOs trying to help poor children in Africa and Asia seem to increase their dependence; it’s like keeping a whole continent in childhood. It’s nice and very honorable to try to help, but only if it results in increased independence and sustainable growth. As a young donor and recent university graduate, I also think it is my job to be informed about the impact that charities make with donors’ contributions. We’re both responsible.

…empowering people to move out of difficult circumstances into more fulfilling lives because this will contribute to society and to the overall economic well-being of communities. I am especially interested in issues for women around the world, who often subsist under terrible circumstances, including abuse and poverty. I will readily give more to organizations that provide empowering support, such as housing, education, job re-training, microloans, etc.

…just thinking about my giving differently. Up to now, whenever I am asked to give, I check a box and send in my gift. I guess I haven’t really considered the benefits of donating more.

…if my giving made me feel like I was making a difference. I have been giving through automatic monthly donations which is convenient but which also diminishes the feeling of being philanthropic. Money is simply taken from my account. I would give more if I had that feeling back again that you get from giving.

…my spouse consenting to giving more money. Frankly, this is my biggest obstacle to being more philanthropic, which I would very much like to be.

…if not-for-profits did any of these things which are important to me –

  • admitting their mistakes openly and telling donors how they have learned from them;
  • putting LESS effort into minimizing overhead and MORE effort into maximizing impact;
  • speaking out against government when needed, and working with government when appropriate, even if that  means making tough compromises;
  • telling me more GOOD NEWS and making me feel like my gifts are having an impact. I don’t need to be told how bad it is out there – I already know. I want an empowering, less depressing tone in messaging that is asking me for money;
  • helping me believe there is something I can do. The facts are: runaway climate change is happening and will not stop; massive unethical corporations are exploiting most of humanity and making most people poorer, not richer; there will be no more fish in the sea for my grandchildren; etc; etc; etc. I cannot change this, but maybe I can help those who work to mitigate these hideous shames on humanity.

…if not-for-profits become more responsive to donors. Many of our gifts are “test cases” to see whether charities will tell us how they have used our contributions. Those that do are going to get  more generous contributions the next time; those that don’t receive less or nothing in the future.

…goal-oriented fundraising — i.e. being able to donate to a specific program or project. It is more motivating for donors to sponsor something specific, for example providing supplies or a well for a school at a cost of $xx. It would be even better if donations could be tracked online on the websites of not-for-profits we are supporting because that would inspire me to donate more or ask friends to help the effort reach the fundraising target. Then, when the goal is reached, they could introduce other elements of the project until the whole program is funded.

…a change in focus of fundraising appeals. I like the “Look what we could do if…..” approach, which can be persuasive if the objective is well thought out and presented. What is most interesting to me is something that will have a significant “ripple effect”. I am especially attracted to a simple idea, elegantly articulated, which fits within the charity’s area of expertise but which can also be adapted and expanded to reach an even greater community. I think people are tired of hearing about big insoluble problems and interested in hearing about people who say:” Yes, but there is a way to get at this and we are going to start the ball rolling!”

…fundraising appeals that do a better job of showing donors that they are connected to the people who need our help. This would make me more likely to contribute to their well-being, for the common good. I am also more likely to see their well-being as my responsibility, not someone else’s. I think that social media can help a lot in providing information and motivation to see ourselves as strongly and meaningfully connected to others.

…having the need for funds translated into personal stories. Two charities that I support have done this and it is highly effective in inspiring me to give more generously — First Descents has campers write to donors to explain how much the camps have changed their lives; and the University of Maryland Hospital for Children sent me a letter with a photo of a parent who was picking out items for their child who was spending the holidays in the hospital. It gave me a real sense of joy because I felt I had accomplished something as a donor.

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