When social distancing is social isolation

So far, caging reports are showing that individual giving through direct mail and online giving has been generally stable so far into COVID-19 challenges.  This is likely because older folks who predominate as donors, especially in channels like mail, tend not to be as impacted by economic woes, as they are often either on stable incomes or steady in their jobs.

Usually it’s incumbent upon us to get in the minds of these donors so we create messages that will engage them and cause them to give.  But I’d like to get in their minds for a different reason: to identify what they are going through as the result of social distancing measures.

To start, elderly people are at greater risk of isolation than the general public.  One out of three people age 65 or older report loneliness and almost half of those 80+ say they are often lonely.

This social isolation has terrible costs.  Isolation is associated with increased risks of disease, dementia, diabetes, disability, depression, and other bad things that don’t start with d like suicide, high blood pressure, suppressed immune systems, anxiety, and hospitalization.

This is all before we were asked to social distance ourselves.  And while there is a difference between being alone and being lonely, the two understandably are related.  Elderly people are more likely to have their only social contact outside of the home in places like community centers and religious venues.  With those cut off, so too is their window to the outside world.

And yet it’s necessary.  While young people are at risk, older people are at greater risk from COVID-19.  Further, delaying peak cases (aka curve flattening) is critical for a functioning public health system.

It’s now that we need to be there for those who have been there for us.

Most often the decision for whether and how to communicate with donors is made in clear rational times: I believe I will net more money in the long term if I send this communication versus if I do not.

This would tend to indicate there’s a moral component as well.  If, during this challenging time, we can decrease suffering of those who’ve helped us, we should if we can.

Thankfully, much of what we do in fundraising is protective.  While technology is not often thought of as a salve for the elderly, digital communications (whether email, social networking, video chatting, etc) help stem loneliness and improve healthPhone calls show people there’s a friend out there.  And mail provides social linkages for those who are physically isolated.

We argue in our white paper about previous economic challenges that it makes good economic sense not to turtle into our shells at times of economic stress.  That more than any macroeconomic loss can harm a program over a period of years.  And this seems to be holding true – telemarketers, for example, are reporting increased contact, discussion, and closure rates for donations, meaning that things are more effort.  So too, as we discussed last week, for online advertising.

But even if these incentives weren’t in place, the data would tend to show the importance of us being a lifeline to and window on the outside world for those most in need of both.

Nick

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