What Can We See from Surveys about Charitable Giving?

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

Surveys and reports on people’s perspectives on any number of subjects appear frequently, yet may reflect intuition and conjecture and may not always offer the highest degree of reliability. Recently, several surveys are starting to reflect some thinking and behavior by donors about charitable giving in 2010. One such well-publicized survey was reported in eJewish Philanthropy last week, which projected a downturn in giving from individuals in 2010.

Our experience through a number of recessions (though this one was perhaps the deepest in recent memory) tells us to start with a basic assumption: psychology research tells us that people typically make “bad” estimates of their own future behavior and quite often these estimates vary significantly from their actions. We saw this last year when similar surveys from early 2009 projected significant downturns in giving, which in reality did not occur. Experts tell us that surveys to predict future results can often provide limited information and sometimes drive or justify behavior of those who read those predictions.

Further, economists running “lab experiments” are learning that what people do in those controlled circumstances are usually NOT very good indicators of what happens “in the field.”

For that reason – primarily – those of us involved in fundraising efforts for non-profits across the globe usually take reports about predictions with a grain of salt … but we certainly do review surveys.

How do you and your fellow non-profit leaders digest these reports and apply them to the work that you address? Make sure that you and your colleagues understand that surveys and various reports consider neither the uniqueness, the experience nor the capabilities of individual organizations. Therefore, we share with you these several recommendations that we believe are relevant and appropriate for your non-profit as you look to grow in the second half of 2010:

  1. Keep reviewing your strategic directions. Experienced fundraising experts believe in ambitious planning and maintaining focus. However, sometimes changes in strategy are warranted, primarily dealing with approaches to donors and leadership. Decide on changes formally; don’t just abandon the plan.
  2. Continuously interact with your organization’s donors. There is no substitute for organizations communicating directly with donors at all levels. That is why many people encourage Facebook and other social media as opportunities to connect donors with the projects they support. For lead and major donors there is no alternative to meeting face-to-face.
  3. Review your pool of lapsed donors: why have they stopped giving to your organization?
  4. Develop a campaign plan for the second half of 2010 that is not exactly like the one you implemented in 2009. Times change and even though the economy has improved in the past year many people are still struggling financially. Know that some of your donors continue to struggle but others are might be prepared to step forward and fill the void.
  5. Be pro-active, positive, and forthright in your appeals.

To get the real story about giving from 2009, watch for the results about giving last year when Giving USA 2010 is released on June 9th. eJewish Philanthropy will carry a full report and analysis of charitable giving in the US in 2009. Giving USA remains the only truly dependable, time honored and respected report that examines giving behaviors and priorities on an annual basis.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.