Head vs. Heart Based Giving

Ken Berger and I respond here to a piece Ruth McCambridge had in the Nonprofit Quarterly….

Ruth McCambridge’s December 5th article on the Nonprofit Quarterly’s Nonprofit Newswire page, “Donors Give LESS When More Analytic Say Researchers,” is certainly provocative; but it misses a serious point and could give donors, both large and small, the wrong impression.

Reviewing a recent Boston Globe article, McCambridge reports that certain research supports the notion that “the more individual contributors think about their donation the less they are likely to give.”  This, McCambridge concedes, “of course, flies in the face of logic for those who encourage individuals to give more ‘wisely,’ recommending research about an organization’s financial ratios and outcomes.”   The article ends with the conclusion that “encouraging donors to give to the most efficient, best organizations might mean that less money actually gets donated.”

That such should be the case does not sound all that unusual: it has long been a staple of home economics that cutting down on impulse buying is one sure way to stay within a budget.  For example, in the case of going to the grocery store, it is estimated that an average family could save about $2500 a year simply by sticking to a thoughtfully created shopping list that for the most part focuses on the essentials.

That impulse giving should not be dramatically different from impulse buying is no real surprise, as both have their roots in emotion and psychological gratification.  But just as impulse buying often squanders resources, so does impulse giving.  Tossing $10, or even $1 into the convenient receptacle looking for “charitable donations” on the counter of a local store, giving simply because someone we know asked us to, or impulsively responding with a check to a heart-tugging photograph of a needy child as part of a mailing we receive are all common examples of how many of us give on impulse.  So, we agree that if people thought more about such contributions –and where the money was actually going- they might be less likely (particularly at this time of year) to simply hand over their money.

That said, we must take strong exception to the underlying implication of the McCambridge article overall: that thinking is inimical to generosity.  To the contrary, research indicates that as much as 15% of current giving, could be based upon research (see Hope Consulting’s Money for Good research); and we believe that that proportion can and should rise.  Why hasn’t it done so already? Perhaps the most seminal reason is that for a vast number of charities out there seeking support, data on performance is simply not available. Therefore, it is tough to argue that people should be research-based and informed in their giving, to use their heads at least as much as they do their hearts, when the essential information that would allow them to do so is usually missing.   By moving to CN 2.0 and, within a few years, to CN 3.0, we are trying to do our part to help fill this void; and we believe that as more charities come to see the value of transparency and accountability, they will increasingly make necessary information available to the public themselves.

In the meanwhile, we have long advocated that donors do at least some research into organizations asking for their support. Far too much of this money is simply wasted on organizations that are inefficient, ineffective, or downright fraudulent. The evidence regarding just how much money is wasted this way is saddening, alarming, and disheartening (for example, see the recent book by Gary Snyder – Silence: The Impending Threat to the Charitable Sector) .  Perhaps most regrettable is that these resources could be far better used by organizations that are managed in an accountable fashion (financially and organizationally) and that can demonstrate meaningful, sustainable, and verifiable outcomes.

We are not suggesting that Ms. McCambridge’s article was deliberately written in such a way as to suggest that thought and consideration should not go into individuals’ giving decision. However, we are afraid that it could be taken that way.

There are any number of reasons to explain the overall findings cited by McCambridge.  But we are hard pressed to imagine any justification for the implication that thought and consideration should not be part of everyone’s donating process. People will always give based, at least in part, upon emotion and impulse.  We understand that.  But we would argue that far from being a depressing influence on charity, thought, consideration, and at least some research will ultimately result in far more effective giving overall, and far fewer precious resources wasted.

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