My colleague Matt Gerken rightly skewered the absurd tendency of vague public opinion polls after a recent study by the MacArthur Foundation found that voters believe “solutions” to “problems” are indeed possible. Slightly more useful than the MacArthur numbers, however, are a handful of new findings by YouGov about the habits and motivations of donors in 2016. YouGov is by its own description a “global online community” devoted to enabling “more collaborative decision making” in political, cultural, and commercial organizations—so they’re not without their own tendencies to vague generalities. But perhaps charity-watchers will find their findings noteworthy.
YouGov touts the study’s main finding: that a third (34%) of people who gave to charity in 2016 plan to give even more in 2017. Meanwhile nearly half (46%) plan to give at about the same rate, 10% to give less than they did last year, and 10% don’t know. This is interesting as a sort of proxy indicator of consumer confidence, suggesting that some 80% of donors predict 2017 will be at least a stable year for them financially.
A little more slippery are the numbers YouGov collected about reasons for giving. More than half (62%) of people polled said they gave money to an organization because they “support the specific cause” of that organization. About half of respondents (49%; the answers in this section were not mutually exclusive) said that giving to charity made them “feel good” while some 40% said that they “feel bad for those who are suffering.”
Gerken’s criticism of useless poll patois seems to apply more to this section of the YouGov poll—of course people give to charities involved in causes they care about, and isn’t one of the basic tenants of charity that we do it because we “feel bad for those who are suffering”? But the reasons people were given to choose from in the poll also included “an advertisement convinced me to give” or “for the tax exemptions”, two options which came in low (6% and 13% respectively). If the numbers are to be trusted, they show evidence that sentiment leads practicality in motivating people to part with their money. Effective organizations already know this, and focus their efforts on clarifying their mission and programming rather than developing shiny ads.
Lastly, there were some interesting if—again—not totally surprising numbers suggesting that those donors who earn more show more of an interest in a charity’s overhead spending than lower income donors. 84% of donors making over $80K a year said they “are concerned about how much a charitable organization spends on overhead compared to its primary cause”; the equivalent number for those donors making under $40K a year was 67%--still high, but some twenty per cent less than their richer counterparts. There are all sorts of obvious reasons for this, namely that wealthier donors often professionalize their giving, but the finding should perhaps serve as a red flag for low-income donors as they plan their giving
These findings primarily serve to confirm conventional wisdom, but also suggest that 2017’s most successful charities will be lean, direct, and emotionally effective.