Urgency and Compassion in Giving

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 2nd, 2019 in Thoughts & Commentary

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crowd singing hymns

Even though it is only May, Atlantic hurricane season is approaching. The start of hurricane season also coincides with the mid-June release of Giving USA 2019:  The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2018.  If the patterns of the last several years continue, we are likely to see an increase in the total dollars given, a decline in the number of households giving and an increase in mega giving (when a person gives at least a million of dollars to one organization.  These mega gifts are driving up the total value of charitable giving, despite the reduction in the number of households giving.  And everyone feels good because charitable giving is on the rise.  While that is technically true, there is a limited pool of the 1.6 million nonprofits in the country that are benefiting from that increase—and they are mostly “eds and meds.”

But that is only part of my concern.  For a long time, folks have wrung their hands worrying about donor fatigue:  are donors just getting tired of hearing from organization after organization, time after time and, thus, stop giving?  Donor imperviousness worries me more.

Have the horrors of our world—from bombings and shootings at places of worship, to the destruction of iconic landmarks, to the wiping out of entire communities from hurricanes and fires, and the list goes on—so hardened our hearts that we no longer open our wallets when the pictures of hardship and destruction cross our screens?  Or, as we start to reach for our money, do the pledges of millions from the mega donors cause us to drop our hands and leave our money where it was? 

I confess that I was all set to give my small donation to the restoration fund for Notre-Dame, an architectural wonder that holds a special place in my heart, when I saw the million euro pledges rolling in and I stopped and thought:  does Notre Dame really need my money? Why don’t I leave that to the mega donors and use my money to support the local food bank, anti-violence program, afterschool program? 

And then I got the call from a reporter who asked me, “Why is the money going to Notre Dame and not to help the Yellow Vests?  An easy question to answer:  urgency and compassion, a combination that is hard to beat.  Did you see the crowds assembled outside Notre Dame singing Ave Maria as they tearfully watched flames consume the iconic steeple?  Do you see such crowds watching the Yellow Vests protests?  Even their own numbers dwindled over the months of the protests. Do you see those crowds helping months after the hurricane or fire struck?  No, because with months comes a diminishing of that urgency.  But, it goes beyond that. 

Currently, women make up 43% of the top wealth owners in the United States, controlling 52% of the wealth, or approximately $14 trillion.  That figure is expected to rise to about $22 trillion by 2020.  Over the next 30-40 years, women are expected to inherit about 70% of the wealth.  So, it would be best if everyone came to understand sooner rather than later the differences in how women and men give to charities. 

Three big differences:  women give out of empathy, men give out of self-interest; women like to do research, men give more spontaneously; and women like collaborative giving (think giving circles; 70% of giving circle members are female).  Couples give more than either single men and single women, and prefer to decide where to give together, through compromise; currently, data show that the man’s preference tends be where the couple lands, though data is showing millennial women have a larger, louder voice in couple’s charitable decision making.

Without doubt, a sense of urgency diminishes when a problem continues over time.  And, while I cannot believe that there is a zero sum pie of compassion, I do know that people’s ability to be compassionate varies, vacillates over time, is regularly tested, and may not always win out, even when all that they may be asked is to drop a few coins in a box or pledge some dollars.  (I am not talking compassion fatigue, as I don’t want to diminish this real state of being for so many on the front lines of caring for people, from nurses and doctors to first responders).  Plus we can assuage any potential guilt as we know those mega donors will step in and up and save the moment—even if not the long haul. 

Sadly, however, another bombing or shooting is coming, another hurricane or fire, another man-made or natural disaster is on its way.  We, as the nonprofits of the world, will be charged not just with the response to the crisis but for the messaging that will to show the urgency and tug at the heart strings—not just for the moment, but for the duration of recovery.   This is our challenge.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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