Can Big Bird Save Philanthropy?

The thing about research is that sometimes you like what it uncovers and sometimes you don’t.

My company’s 2011 Cygnus Donor Survey is loaded with good news and I highlighted some of this study’s positive findings in my last blog, Brace Yourself for Happiness. By the way, I will be discussing the key findings from this robust study in a webinar next week. I’ll cover findings from 22,000 donors on where they are taking their philanthropy in 2011, how they plan to transact their gifts, and what they need from the not-for-profits they support. If you want to feel good about the future while picking up some very practical advice from donors, please join me on Tuesday, May 3rd (American results) or Wednesday, May 4th (Canadian findings).

But, I want to draw your attention to something I have written about before — specifically, the relationship between religious conviction and philanthropy. Donors who are actively religious give considerably more to charitable causes than do donors who refer to themselves as “not at all religious” or “somewhere in between”.  Actively religious donors are highly productive in many ways. Not only do they give more, but they are more likely to maintain or increase their giving in an unstable economy, and more likely to volunteer and do so at a leadership level. And, their commitment to giving is not limited to supporting their own religious institutions; actively religious donors give generously in every direction — to education, healthcare, social services and the arts.

The problem is, though, that religious conviction is declining with every succeeding generation, making your jobs as fundraisers and not-for-profit CEOs even tougher. For the last two years, I have been posing this question in speaking engagements and seminars — “As the positive influence that religion exerts on philanthropy wanes, what is waiting in the wings to take over?”

Big Bird, it seems — or, more accurately, Sesame Street. This wonderful institution that has given so much to generations of preschoolers has decided that it’s never too early to learn how to manage money. Besides being completely right about that, the way they have developed their approach to financial literacy for the very young is nothing short of brilliant. On a theme of  “spend / save / share”, Sesame Street is teaching children that any amount of money, no matter how modest, can be divided three ways – some for buying the things you need or want now, some for saving for even bigger things and for future security, and some for giving to others.

My immediate reaction was, “Great, but surely Sesame Street can’t do this enormous job alone.” Then I did what a researcher always does and looked at the stats. While the percentage of donors under the age of 35 who are actively religious is now in the low 20’s, the percentage of preschoolers who watch TV is a solid 75%.

Fundraisers should adopt this theme song:

Sunny day…sweeping those clouds away….on my way to where the air is sweet…can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street.


Showing 5 comments
  • Helen Connor

    Penelope, what’s the commonality that religious conviction and Sesame Street share that would prompt the latter to give as generously and consistently as the former?

    The books of the three great religions guide followers to do good works. How does Sesame Street engender the same kind of motivation? I am not of the Sesame Street generations, I’m afraid.

    Thanks for making me think more.

  • Jim

    Hi Penelope,
    The Cygnus survey pointed out that almost 30% of donors planned to be more thoughful about their giving and planned on “donating more to local charities rather than national or umbrella organizations.”
    This left me wondering if there has ever been a study to determine the percentage of an average donor’s charitable pocketbook that goes to local charities (with a locally-focused mission) vs. national nonprofits. Have you ever seen any research in this area?

    • Penelope Burk

      Cygnus has not done research on this question and I’m not sure whether anyone else has. The problem inherent in the question, though, is that it may be hard to produce reliable information when it comes to donors who support not-for-profits structured nationally/regionally/locally. In some cases, donors may think they have supported their local affiliate when the money is actually going to the national office, or vice versa. In others, the charity itself may have a revenue-sharing formula for gifts received of which the donor could be unaware. Next year’s Cygnus Donor Survey will be including a few questions about how donors manage their philanthropy when they give to several questions. We may be able to include something that will be of use to you on this issue. Thanks for your question. Penelope

      • Penelope Burk

        Giving USA’s annual report does show how individual giving is distributed across all sub-sectors, not just the percentage that goes to religion so, on one level, that information is already available. However, your question seems also to imply that the distribution of philanthropic dollars may change as the percentage of actively religious donors declines. I don’t know of any research on this and it may be too speculative at this point. In the big picture, however, there are two possibilities: the value of philanthropy may simply fall overall as a percentage of GDP, with less money going to religion while other kinds of NFPs show little measurable benefit; or giving might shift from religion to other causes. But if the latter is to happen, it will require a concerted, proactive effort on the part of the charitable sector to do a more thorough job in educating the public about philanthropy and re-enforcing the act of giving. That is currently what separates religious institutions from other causes. Religion, in fact, provides a service to the entire not for profit sector by taking on this job.

  • Kathy

    Penelope, according to the Giving USA Foundation annual reports, religious causes are consistently about 33% of the recipient “pie” and approximately 75% of donations come from individuals. Any research that shows what the % of individual gifts would look like if you took out gifts to religious causes? It would be interesting to know what percentage of gifts to individual contribution recipient categories comes from individuals.

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