Spend, Not Give Donations?

The folks on the Non-Profit Happy Hour Facebook group posted a link to a Ohio State University (I’m sorry, THE Ohio State University) post which claims that charities should not use the word “give” when requesting donations.

They say it is a matter of feeling in control of how a donation is used. According to an analysis of the responses by 2700 people who participated in seven studies, people would rather give their time rather than money. This conflicts with charities’ general preference for monetary donations.

Overall, the study found that people prefer giving their time to nonprofit organizations rather than their money, because they feel more personal control over how their time is used, according to Malkoc.

“It is not possible to separate ourselves from our time, the way that we can from our money,” she said. “When you give your time, it is still a part of you. You are still living through it.”

The suggestion they make is that using the word “spend” provides people with a greater sense of control and therefore makes them apt to donate greater amounts.

People approached for a financial donation offered more than twice as much when they were asked to “spend” their money ($94) than when they were asked to “give” their money ($40).

And here’s why: Participants were asked several questions that measured how much control they would feel over their donations. Results showed that people who were asked to spend their money reported feeling more control than those who were asked to give their money.

[…]

When given control, people were nearly equally interested in giving, whether it was time or money.

“If nonprofits gave more control over how donations are spent, or made donors feel like they were spending their money rather than giving it, that may alleviate some of the disconnect people feel about financial gifts.”

Having read this, I believe there would have to be a good deal more work done on messaging and terminology employed to give people a sense of control rather than using a term like “spend.” The sense of donations being a transactional relationship is already a big problem in terms of the belief non-profits need to be run like a business; conceiving results achieved in terms of return on investment; large donations providing access, perqs, influence, and naming rights; the last of which many organizations have been trying to disentangle themselves.

Not to mention the growing prevalence of donor advised funds which provide tax benefits and a high degree of control without the obligation to disburse.

It seems like employing terms like “spend” will only exacerbate current problems and serve to entrench the use of restricted giving. While there are ways to give donors a greater sense of control over how their money is spent and technology available to facilitate the process, I would be concerned that this would mean staff would be further diverted from providing core services to underserved communities.

The model the study seems to be suggesting feels like it would be along the lines of the ubiquitous TV ads that told you that for $4/month you could purchase a meal for a child and that you would receive a packet with updates about the child. As a donor to this program, you feel a high degree of control over how your money is being spent.

The better solution is probably to employ broader, more consistent messaging emphasizing unrestricted giving without the expectation of expensive benefits. People absolutely do deserve a sense of assurance and control. You don’t want to give to con artists who are going to run off with your money. But that can come from providing easier access to information attesting to the legitimacy of the charity.

While there are websites that provide that sort of analysis, people aren’t widely aware of them as resources. The metrics these sites have traditionally employed have been problematic. There has been a tendency to focus on overhead ratio as a measure of effectiveness. There are probably a lot of diversity, equity and inclusion issues with what data is used and how it is analyzed too. Ultimately, a complete overhaul over a long term will be necessary.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the 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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1 thought on “Spend, Not Give Donations?”

  1. As a small-to-medium donor, I definitely want to know that my money is being spent wisely. For some organizations, I’m comfortable with all that they do and am willing to give unrestricted funds. For others (like universities), I’d much rather give to specific projects that I see as doing good work, as there are infinite sinks at those organizations that could soak up all the money without doing anything I see value in, if given unrestricted funds.

    For example, I give to many student groups at the university I retired from, but I would not give a penny that was controlled by the administration—too many really bad ideas originate there. I also started a small endowment at the local community college for their extension program, which usually gets ignored by the community college foundation (which has wasted money on refurbishing athletic fields, though most of their donations go properly to scholarships).

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