A problem of the heart

Allison Fine, one of a dozen or so excellent nonprofit experts I follow regularly, posted an article yesterday asking why it is that giving has been essentially flat for 40 years at 2% of GDP. The occasion of her post was the publication by Blackbaud of a whitepaper entitled Growing Philanthropy. It is a meaty report, with 32 recommendations for nonprofits about how to increase overall giving. There is a lot of substance there, and yet I fear its size will inspire more people put it on their “I should read this” pile than actually read it.

It is also rather academic, and as such while I think it adds to the dialogue I’m not sure it describes the whole solution, or even identifies the entire problem. The problem cannot just be solved with best practices and organizational efficiency. We need passionate calls to action to the many who are not yet involved, and passionate encouragement for further engagement to those that already are.

Taking a step back for a moment, the concept that giving is consistent as a percentage of GDP is a Big Idea in capital letters. Once you get your head around it, you realize you have found one of the core dynamics shaping the entire nonprofit system. It is surprising not only for its 40-year consistency, but more notably for the fact that most nonprofit leaders seem to be completely unaware of it. I am constantly struck but how few nonprofit executives, development professionals, and marketers will acknowledge that giving is pegged to GDP. The few who do know seem to think (or hope) that their own organizations exist outside of this reality. 

Giving USA has been tracking this for years and years. About five years ago – prior to banking explosions but well into early signs of recession – I wrote several position papers on this topic for our clients at Event 360. If giving is constant as a percentage of GDP, it stands to reason that dollar giving will go up in times of growth – and unfortunately, will decline in times of recession. That is exactly what happened, of course; but even organizations which saw the recession coming were unprepared for the drop in giving. 

The more pressing question, as Allison points out, is not “does the dynamic exist” but “why does it exist, and how can we change it?” My own experience with very large peer-to-peer programs has probably colored my view – but I will say that we consistently find it is easier to get people who are already giving to give more than it is to get people who haven’t done anything to make the first gift. My sense is that this same truism operates at a system-wide level in the whole nonprofit space. 

More to the point, after twenty years in the space I’m not sure that we’ve gotten any better at getting the large numbers of people who do not donate a thing to get involved. And before I go further: My last sentence references another Big Idea that those of us who live and breathe charity tend to forget. We are surrounded by giving and so we forget that large numbers of people do not give at all. A Harris Interactive poll conducted late last year found that only 12% of people admit to not giving at all. Well, that doesn’t sound so bad! But ominously, the same poll found that only about a quarter of people felt “some responsibility to improve the world they live in.” Wow. (Further, we tend to forget that of individuals who do give, over a third of that giving come from and goes to religious organizations – the only organizations I’ve run across which have integrated a recurring, weekly, in-person, experiential ask into their mission. They ask in the pews, every Sunday.)

In any case, my point is that I think we’ve gotten a lot better at activating those who are charitable, but not any better at inspiring new charitableness. When one-quarter is literally carrying the weight of the world, we’ve got a big challenge on our hands. Improving effectiveness with social media, making better investment decisions, providing better training, and sharing workable solutions are all important. But this is a problem of the heart as much as the head. We need to make giving more accessible and less tedious, and as amazing as it may sound, we need to do more to not only emphasize this cause or that but to convey the obligation, transcendence, and joy of giving itself.