The vibrant difference between a photo and a movie helps explain why almost all people can be viewed as prospective donors.
Fundraisers understandably are concerned when they read that just half of American households donate to nonprofit organizations, down from two-thirds a decade ago. That statistic is from a valid and highly-reliable survey that is conducted every two years, gathering information from donors in the same families, from one year and one generation to the next.
However, a recent survey of American perceptions of the nonprofit sector found that 61 percent of households donate to charity. Complicating things further, Gallup reports that 81 percent of people make charitable donations, while the General Social Survey’s finding is 88 percent.
Which statistic is correct? Well, cue Mark Twain’s wisecrack about lies and statistics because the answer is: all of them! Different studies use different research methods, but synthesizing these conflicting findings produces an encouraging data point.
The various research studies and surveys ask different questions to different people at different times of the year and at different time intervals. A simple example: one study asks if the person donated in the last year, while another survey asks if the person ever donated to a nonprofit. This is just one of many distinctions in the research.
Despite these differences, the data offer hopeful guidance. Dr. Mark Ottoni-Wilhem has been researching donors and their charitable giving behaviors for 25 years as an affiliate professor at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Ottoni-Wilhelm counsels fundraisers to notice that only 12 percent of people never donate.
Ottoni-Wilhem’s encouraging guidance has several practical implications for fundraising:
- While nonprofits think in terms of an annual fund, not all individuals are annual donors. Fundraisers need to plan on which donors will donate this year. The list likely will not be identical to the previous year and will need to be revised again next year.
- Fundraisers can continue their important work with a growth mindset supported by a sense of possibility, especially since…
- All donors are important, and all gift sizes are important. Focusing only on the wealthiest donors and the largest gifts obviously limits the number of households that will donate to your nonprofit.
- The fact that not all donors are annual donors reemphasizes the importance of donor stewardship – staying in touch with our donors in ways that do not always ask them for money. Maintaining an ongoing relationship honors the donor’s dignity (reason alone for stewardship) while honoring the donor’s timing for charitable giving – which may or may not be annually.
- If we focus solely on the “50 percent of households donate” statistic, we should not be surprised that so many nonprofits struggle to hire fundraisers. That said…
- Fundraising is hard work. There is no simple formula guaranteeing fundraising success. Leaders thrive in ambiguity, and fundraisers lead their nonprofits when they work through the uncertainties of who might or might not donate from one year to the next.
Ottoni-Wilhelm invites fundraisers to think of old photographs. The people pictured are standing still in a photo that is in black-and-white. However, those same people lived their lives in motion and in living color. They lived different seasons in their own lives while launching the next generation.
“Fundraising is not a photo but instead is a motion picture,” Ottoni-Wilhelm said. “Fundraising is not static and instead is constantly moving, constantly changing.” A dynamic reality that cannot be captured in a single photo or a simple statistic.
Bill Stanczykiewicz, Ed.D., is director and Rosso Fellow of The Fund Raising School within the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.