Further Evidence on the Critical Role of Donor Engagement

In today’s development field the phrase, “donor engagement,” get tossed around like a football owned by Peyton Manning.  Everyone uses it.  But not many people pause long enough to provide any definitional specificity to the phrase.  What do we really mean when we say we need to “engage” donors?  And why is it really important anyway?

While Ken Stern’s new book, “With Charity for All:  Why Charities are Failing and a Better Way to Give,” is receiving mixed reviews for its recommendations, some of the research he presents is instructive to development professionals.  For instance, the conventional wisdom on the inverse relationship between wealth and giving may not be as simple as first thought.  For years, of course, researchers (and those concerned with social justice), pointed out the fact that the wealthiest in the U.S. give less of their income for philanthropic purposes than do poorer Americans.  It has regularly been shown that the richest among us give between 1.3% – 4.2% of their income to charity while those in the middle and lower economic classes donate between 3.2% – 7.6% of their income.

The knee-jerk reasoning behind such sad numbers has been that rich people are, well . . . jerks.  Uncaring jerks to be precise.  And that’s some of the nice ways that social scientists have described these findings over the years!

But what is really going on?  To answer this question, “The Chronicle of Philanthropy” conducted the “How America Gives” study and the findings are bit more nuanced than previously understood.  What was uncovered when looking at giving by zip codes is that if wealthy households co-mingle in a mixed socio-economic environment, they give more of their money away.  However, if wealthy folks live with a whole bunch of other wealthy folks (the threshold seems to be if they live in the same neighborhood with 40% or more people who also are wealthy), then they give considerably less.  In general, those making $200,000 per year or more give away 4.2% of their income to charity.  In the “wealthy living with wealthy” neighborhoods, the average is 2.8% going to charity.

The reason for this disparity seems to be exposure to need.  Because those with fewer financial resources rely more on others in their communities, they in turn, are more likely to help out others when they can.  The inverse also holds.  If a family lives in a neighborhood where everyone else is rich, they don’t see and experience need every day.  And, they are less likely to respond with empathy and generosity.

But the lack of empathy and generosity among the wealthy is not unchangeable.  Social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, Paul Piff has shown that when wealthy and poor individuals are shown the same short video about child poverty, they both respond by giving at similar levels.  When people are exposed to need, they respond with generosity – regardless of their financial capacity.

Taken together what such findings strongly suggest to us in development is that we should strive to be mission-centric, donor-engaging fundraisers.  Our goal should be to get donors and prospects involved in the work and missions of our institutions.  Get them to see and experience the need for themselves.  Invite them on-site.  Introduce them to our students, clients, and others we serve.  Ask them to volunteer. Expose them to a world that may be far different than their own.  Simply put:  Engage them.


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