Freedom vs. Burden in Charitable Giving

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 12th, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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It starts right about now:  an increase in solicitations in your snail and email boxes, on your phone and via all forms of social media, asking for donations for what is hoped is your favorite charity.  It continues with the news articles and radio and television stories on assessing where and how to give.  It continues right up to the first note of Auld Lang Syne.

The tug of war has begun:  charities that need your money versus the highly sought (and in high demand) donors who want the last grab at a tax break.  (Truth is, and this seems something folks seem to forget, that the tax deduction is good no matter when in the calendar year you give; no need to wait until the last minute of the year.)    At nonprofits, the frenzy has already begun as folks everywhere struggle with the standard questions of who, for what and how much.  And you don’t have to listen hard to hear the weariness in nonprofit staffs’ and volunteers’ voices as they anticipate the approach of this season.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought of late to this relationship of donor and charity.

No matter how smooth, strong, friendly, etc. the relationship, it is, by its very nature, always fraught, made so if for no other reason than the fact that one is the beggar and the other the giver.  Being honest, no matter how good we think our organization, and no matter how nice the donor, when you have to go with hat in hand, it feels like begging.  As I said, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, partly because of the season and partly because of Panera Bread Company.

In May of this year, Panera opened a store in downtown Clayton, Missouri.  No news there.  But this store was an experiment:  it is a pay what you want to pay.  There are suggested prices for every item and a “greeter” who welcomes patrons and explains the system, letting people know that this Panera is not a free store but a pay-what-you-feel-you-can-and-should-pay.  Five months after the start of this experiment, Panera has declared the store a success, and announced in October that the store was breaking even and should be turning a profit any moment now.  Turns out that when given a “suggested retail price, ”65% of patrons paid it; another 10%-15% gave more, leaving the remainder who gave less.  And the thinking is that the majority, though not all, of those who paid less were those who were truly in need.  The experiment was so successful that Panera has plans to open two more such stores—one in the mid-West and one on the West Coast, and is not making predictions about how common or not such stores may become.

Point?  Do we do what is “right” because we know it is right or because we are “told” it is right by heart wrenching stories and smiling, yet hurting, faces?  Do we take responsibility for ourselves and others because we are given a tax break or because we know it is the right thing to do?  With no promise of a thank you note, a tax deduction, a name on a recognition list in an annual report, 75%-80% of the patrons of the Panera in Clayton did the right thing.  That’s a much better response rate than most direct mail campaigns get.  Maybe there is more here that deserves our attention.

Contrast this with a story a friend, an executive director of a nonprofit, recently told me.  She was at a fundraising dinner (not for her own organization) and struck up a conversation with an older woman.  As the evening drew to a close, the older woman mentioned that she needed to call her husband to arrange for a ride home.  My friend offered to take the woman home.  As the woman went to get out of the car at her home with a very, very posh address, she turned to my friend and said, “Well, I guess I’ll be hearing from you.”  Was this a kind offer of support for my friend’s nonprofit?  Was this a gesture to make things easier or the weariness of a donor who “knows the drill?”

As we move into this season of asking, how are we as nonprofits encouraging the freedom to give as opposed to creating the burden of giving?

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