Tweet Me Your Gift Now

Non-Profit Quarterly (NPQ) had a piece today encouraging people to pay attention to the fact that Chinese are using social media service Weibo to give directly to the needy. The NPQ piece is in reaction to a Washington Post article about how recent charity scandals had turned a lot of Chinese off from giving to the state approved charities. Now people are using services like Weibo (China’s Twitter/Facebook hybrid social media service) to give to people directly, even though it is illegal to do so.

The scandals have shaken public confidence so badly that the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in June that giving in 2011 was down to $7.9 billion from $9.5 billion in 2010. The Chronicle’s numbers come from a story on the state run China Daily which attributed the drop to a number of factors in addition to the scandals, including the economic downturn and general giving practices in China.

“In China, people’s willingness to give is ‘disaster-driven’ while in the US, donating is a habit.”

He added that the Chinese philanthropic sector’s over dependency on corporations could be another possible explanation to understand the dramatic changes in donations.

“Our research shows that companies, especially private companies, are dominant contributors. Last year, many export companies suffered from the global economic downturn, so they didn’t have much money to donate,” said Deng.”

What interested most about these stories wasn’t so much that people are using social media to give. We already know that is becoming a bigger factor in giving in the U.S. and recent laws are making it easier to crowd fund projects.

What I was paying attention to was that people were giving via social media even though they acknowledged that it is no more transparent and just as ripe for exploitation as giving to an official charity. In fact, some Chinese observed that personality and good looks seemed to motivate giving more than need in a few cases.

There seemed to be a psychological factor inherent to giving to someone directly that gave people a higher degree of confidence in the act of donating.

The US doesn’t have scandals the size of those in China, but there is still a lot of conversation about administrative overhead and Non Profit CEO salaries. Even though these criteria are generally unfair, they can still motivate giving decisions.

There is an old adage that people don’t give to organizations, they give to people. Based on these stories about China and some general observations I have had about the way people generally behave in the US, non profit arts organizations may find they need to provide giving mechanisms that give people a much more immediate sense of connection and response than in the past.

In addition to the ability to give online, an arts organization may need to allow people to give via their smartphones so that patrons can donate during a performance and immediately gain the sense that they are supporting that actor/singer/dancer that just came onstage. If the person walks off stage before they can give, it may be too late.

Two years ago during a public radio fund drive I was so moved by the quality of the show I was listening to, I pulled over into a parking lot to make my pledge because the show was almost over and I felt like I needed to make my pledge before it ended. There wasn’t really any reason not to wait until I got home because the money was going to the station and not the show directly and I already knew I was going to give again that year—But I just had to show my support for that show!

As people become accustomed to giving to things like Kickstarter projects, non profit arts organizations may find themselves having to solicit donations specifically for each project they plan to do rather than based on a general promise to do quality work as has been typical.

Arts organizations may be faced with the dilemma of positioning their programs this way. Restricted donations have always been a problem for non-profits. Do you want to be faced with having every $25 donation restricted to a specific project because people are more motivated to give to something to which they feel a direct connection?

You might as well have a for-profit structure if you are going to have market demand dictate what is funded, eh?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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