The exodus of everyday donors is bad for America

The exodus of everyday donors is bad for America

Vrana is CEO of GlobalGiving, an online fundraising community.

During my many years working in the nonprofit and philanthropic communities, I have come to deeply appreciate the everyday donor — regular folks who give via credit cards, checks, “donate” buttons, and collection jars. They typically give in amounts that don’t make headlines, but collectively their generosity powers our work.

Which is why we should be worried about the decline in the number of individuals who donate. In the United States, the share of households giving to charity has dropped from two-thirds to less than half, although it’s possible people are making gifts of time and treasure outside of the 501(c)(3) structure. I believe humans are inherently generous. Still, the fact that fewer Americans support our causes represents a threat to our work and the common good.

It also represents a threat to democracy itself. Donations are a civic expression, a tangible investment in an individual’s hopes and vision for the country. Just as lagging voter turnout and deepening political polarization suggest atrophy of our will to civically engage, advocate and even dream of a better America, so, too, does declining support for charity.

Consider this: Recent research from the Do Good Institute and Generosity Commission reveals that individuals who donate or volunteer are more likely to vote. “Volunteering (for any cause, not just a political one) increases voter turnout probability by 12 percentage points, while giving increases voter turnout probability by 10.1 percentage points,” according to the report, underscoring the connection between citizen philanthropy and a vibrant, participatory democracy.

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Donating and voting share DNA. Like votes, charitable contributions reflect a desire to change the world for the better and a preference for how to go about the work. As such, they represent an investment in the democratic process. Conversely, a decline in donations — fewer households making gifts — signals civic engagement under threat and the fate of our communities and country hanging in the balance. A philanthropic landscape dominated by a few large donors potentially narrows support for a wide range of causes and undermines the inclusiveness of civil societies. The result: an undemocratic shift in which fewer voices are heard and the wealthy, whose donations become all the more critical, gain influence.

The decline in donor participation also disproportionately harms the small nonprofits critical to democracy. These organizations often work at the heart of their communities and create the most relevant solutions. I first saw their power in the winter of 1994 as I traveled throughout the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe for the Network of East-West Women.

As I helped connect civil society NGOs in those new democracies to the global community via the internet, I learned about the indispensable role of local, grassroots entities in nurturing and safeguarding democracy through organizing communities at the base level. And I was amazed at how digital tools wove them together and connected them to support globally. The advent of webmail enabled activists and practitioners to connect, organize, learn from one another, and advance change across borders in a cost-effective and lightning-fast way.

Through their work, I saw the influence of the “citizen donor” in budding democracies.

How to refocus on everyday donors

Thirty years later, the retreat of the citizen donor couldn’t come at a worse time. Democracy faces challenges from every direction as half the world heads to the polls this year to vote in democratic elections.

Nonprofits increasingly face a two-pronged challenge: pursue financial stability by focusing on major donors and find ways to re-engage with everyday donors essential for maintaining a diverse and vibrant civil society. This is not just about preserving nonprofit funding; it’s about upholding the democratic values embedded in philanthropy.

We have to rise to meet this challenge, and our response must be swift and strategic. Nonprofits need to refocus on everyday donors, celebrating every contribution and breaking ground in new engagement methods. We can do this in a number of ways, including embracing innovative platforms that facilitate microdonations. Apps linked to bank accounts save pennies from everyday transactions and enable monthly microdonations to a single organization — powerful tools to increase donor participation. Experimenting with pooling microdonations can amplify individual contributions as well as impact.

We need to leverage technology for more inclusive and accessible giving campaigns. This means experimenting with text donations and normalizing small gifts, encouraging broader participation. It’s crucial to understand the profiles of donors and engage in ways and amounts that resonate with them. Additionally, creating opportunities for donors to commit to “give more later” can help sustain long-term support. We must stay attuned to the evolving motivations of donors, ensuring our engagement methods remain dynamic and responsive.

We should also create pathways for microdonations, including opportunities to round up and give at checkout, letting donors know that every gift counts. Giving circles, crowdfunding and other collaborative vehicles allow smaller-dollar donors to leverage one another’s funding and reduce the administrative burden on nonprofits at the same time.

At GlobalGiving, we’ve seen the power of small donations add up to big change. Our Little by Little fundraising campaign includes a matching incentive for every donation. With more than 52,000 donations collected over the past four campaigns, it’s clear that incentives for everyday donors work. Nearly half are gifts of $50 or less, and the average ranges between $54 and $68. Each campaign highlights how digital outreach can engage more people, helping donors see the impact of even the smallest gifts.

Major donors and large funding organizations have a role to play, too. Investing in tools, platforms, and innovations that facilitate and amplify the impact of citizen philanthropy can help reverse the downward trend. Supporting movements like GivingTuesday can go a long way. They foster engagement and participation by donors around the world, democratizing giving and ensuring wider and more varied philanthropic participation.

Investing in research about donor behavior and making best practices a default in fundraising software and tools for nonprofits can help revitalize our practices. Funding recruitment and training for fundraisers from all demographics helps reach donor communities that may not be engaged. Providing R&D capital to platforms and organizations to try new engagement methods for donors, including shifting relationships from the transactional to more relational, would go far.

When GlobalGiving was founded in the early 2000s, “democratizing philanthropy” was part of our mission statement. More than 20-some years have passed, but our driving motivation — to make sure philanthropy works for everyone — remains fundamental. Since 2002, GlobalGiving has raised more than $916 million from 1.8 million people and hundreds of companies that have supported 36,482 projects in more than 175 countries. We focus on grassroots organizations embedded in their communities, especially in times of crisis.

As we approach a defining moment for democracy around the globe, the active participation of citizen donors is not just important — it’s essential. These givers are more than voters and contributors; they are the architects of a thriving, inclusive and resilient civil society.

This writing was originally published in The Commons, a project of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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