Why a generic warm glow isn’t enough

The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance published a survey of nonprofits and donors during the COVID-19 crisis.  The whole survey is worth a look, but there’s good top line news: 53% of donors say they will be maintaining their giving this year and 31% say they plan to give more.

Now, this is a survey and is a bit suspect in that people have a desire to give answers that sound good.  It’s called the social desirability bias—even if you don’t know the person on the other end of the phone (or, in this case, series of tubes, as it was an online survey), you want to give an answer that sounds good.

There’s also the issue of economic challenges.  People may intend to keep their giving stable but not be able to because of their circumstances.  As Mike Tyson famously said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Given that, though, it’s better that people say they intend to keep giving than if they said they intend to lower their giving in the current economic climate.  In fact, the donors were far more optimistic than the nonprofits surveyed, which should bring in a ray of sunshine.

That said, there’s a minor detail in the survey that hints at sector storm clouds if not handled properly.  Namely, they asked donors how they planned to help.  A quarter said they would look for ways to help unemployed people directly; another 24% said they would plan to give money to small businesses.

These are both activities that would help in the wake of the health and economic crisis we face.  You can anticipate that doing these things would feel good; they get the warm glow of helping, that heady mix of dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin.  And yet they aren’t giving to a nonprofit but directly to those affected. 

The goal of philanthropy is absolutely to help individuals.  But it’s also to fix problems upstream. 

Giving to a person can help raise funds for a surgery; philanthropy can address why the surgery is so expensive.

Giving to a school can help them raise money for textbooks; philanthropy closes educational gaps between rich schools and poor schools.

Giving to help a victim of drunk driving can help them pay their bills as they grieve; philanthropy can end drunk driving.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it,

“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropists to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.”

So what we do as nonprofits is necessary.  But in a world where you want to help a specific person or business, someone you know, how are we to compete?

It is times like these that the causes whose central pitch is that they are how good people do good things will suffer.  And it’s when the causes who central pitch is who they help a specific type of person make the one true difference they ache to make in the world will thrive.

This means knowing your donor: who they are and their very specific “why” yours is the cause they support or should support.

This means customizing to that donor: showing them that you know them and that they are making the difference they wish to make.

This means iterating: learning more, customizing more, then learning more, then customizing more, until the letter, phone call, email, or web page the person sees looks like it was written to them.  Because it was.

In an age where need abounds and a warm glow can be had from a GoFundMe, a purchase at your local small business, or a dollar of your purchase going to a cause you’ll forget about before you get your receipt, the competition for warm glow has only increased. 

We must correspondingly up our game.  That means deeper, using the tools of our trade to know more and be more for our donors.  It will never not be a strong investment.

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