How we give

I came across a study that asserts that 65% of all American charitable giving has no research behind it.

In some ways, that’s surprising, right? With all of the talk about accountability and transparency?

It seems like people would want to know where their money is going. Instead, we mostly just give–when we’re moved, when we’re guilty, when we’re connected to those who need the gifts.

And we hope that our gifts will make a difference.

But we don’t really know.

I thought about these data, and about how we give, over the Christmas holiday, when Sam and I sat down to make our end-of-the-year charitable contributions.

Because nonprofits need us to give better. They need us to use our dollars to help them focus on results and support them in reaching for excellence. They need us to give in ways that make sense for their work, instead of just the ways that feel good to us. We share the same aspirations–we and the nonprofits we deem worthy of our support–or we wouldn’t give to them in the first place.

But how we give can make a difference in how likely they are to reach them–how likely we are to get there together.

  • Sam and I give at the end of the year not because there’s a particular need at that time, but, instead, because that’s part of our family’s holiday ritual. It works for us, but we should acknowledge that they might be better served by a different giving pattern.
  • Sam is fairly strategic in his giving choices. He usually has a particular part of the world, or a particular problem he wants to address, that becomes his priority. We don’t just respond to the solicitations we get, and we never give over the phone, because that feels too pressured. I think he fits into the 35% minority, probably, if they studied 6-year-olds.
  • We do some research on the front end, usually including reviewing the organization’s materials around (what I call) their theory of change–how do they talk about why they do what they do, and does that linkage make sense to us? What we lack, for this part, is good information about impact; we have financial data at our fingertips, and even access to efficiency/good governance ratings sometimes, but that’s not the same as really assessing the dent they’re making in the problems that plague us, and I feel that failing.
  • We almost never have ongoing contact with the organizations after our donation. We really should, I know–we’re now part of their constituency, and we should care about what they’re doing with our money, and how they’re ‘moving the needle’ on the problem we set out to solve together. But we don’t, I guess because, in the end, our giving is more about us than about them, which says something pretty significant, I think.
  • Related to that, it really just occurred to me preparing this post that we don’t support most of the organizations we give to in any other way–I don’t receive their action alerts, and we don’t advocate alongside them, and I don’t volunteer. We have a slate of organizations and causes with which we share what we have–some get our time, some my expertise, some our money. When I put it like that, it seems odd, and it has me thinking about why our charitable giving is somehow separate from the rest of our nonprofit work.

I’d love to hear about others’ giving habits–how do you give to nonprofits? Which ones are priorities for you, and why? How much research goes into your decision, and what information weighs most heavily? How would you characterize your relationship with the nonprofits you support financially? What does that say about what giving means to you?

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