Culture, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Charity in America: Stepping Over Dimes to Chase a Dollar

While it’s often said that Americans are a charitable people, the fact is some of us are more charitable than others.  The most charitable among us?  Working class folks.  Here’s the percentage of household income given to charity broken down by income level, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Household Income                                          Charitable Giving

$50,000 – $99,999                                             6.0 %

$100,000 – $199,999                                         4.2%

$200,000 +                                                          4.2%

That means that households with the least amount of disposable income and households that don’t benefit AT ALL from the tax deduction for charitable giving are almost 50% more generous than richer households. 


I saw this principle in action two weeks ago.

Key West is a magical place for many reasons, but one of them is the contest for King and Queen of Fantasy Fest.  By longstanding tradition, the title is conferred not based on politics or any particular talent, but by which candidate and their team can raise the most money for AIDS Help, the local AIDS service organization.  The campaigns are grassroots and quirky, just like Key West.  Check out some of the candidate’s videos .

And while close to 70,000 tourists stream into Key West for Fantasy Fest, and pay upwards of $400 per night for a hotel room, the campaign is concluded before the wealthy tourists arrive, meaning all the money must be raised from the locals during their slowest and most economically challenging time of the year in a tourism dependent economy.

By conventional fundraising standards, it’s all wrong.  It’s tapping the wrong audience at the wrong time of the year through an endless series of low dollar special events – car washes, barbecues, karaoke, bingo, etc, etc, etc.  But all those wrongs add up to a big right: this year they raised over $200,000 literally a dollar at a time.

It’s the smallest of small dollar fundraising but it works.

Yet most charities look down on their small donors, treat them badly, and trade their names back and forth as if their giving and their allegiance were meaningless.  Most charities look down on precisely those donors who have the greatest passion for the cause.

Instead of stepping over passionate low dollar contributors to search instead for those elusive “high net worth individual” prospects, charities need to become more efficient and more effective at recognizing and celebrating the passion of their most generous donors.


4 thoughts on “Charity in America: Stepping Over Dimes to Chase a Dollar

  1. Tom Reed says:

    You hit the nail on the head Mike. We are becoming more and more disenchanted with non-profits who simply don’t get it. The universal problem is their focus on the big donors (really big), government and corporate funding. The leaders spew a good tale about the small donor, but their words don’t match their actions. (Food and Friends being the outstanding exception). There also seems to be a growing divide between the organizational leaders and those whom they claim they are helping. This was not your subject, but patronizing is a big turn off.

  2. Great blog, Mike. I agree with Tom. However, I find that most large fundraising operations, especially GLBT’s, want your money and could give a damn about thanking you or caring if it was an effort. (Excluding Food & Friends). And, they also don’t care how they spend what you gave. They’ll use it how they say fit. Marketing, trips, etc. They all need a good education in giving AND receiving.

  3. John Riley says:

    The local public radio station in Boston now has a program geared toward small donors – they call them sustainers. It could be a person who donates $5 a month. It seems to be working. I hate to say this Mike, but people wall themselves off in this country. They segregate by income and don’t see the problems. They have pet causes they donate to, and as you intimated are treated well for their support. I have a neighbor who is chairman of the Board of the Children’s Museum. The Museum holds great events for their best donors to mingle and have fun.

  4. Liz says:

    Great blog Mike. Tapping into a small but committed donor base is not new though. In the Internet age, the path of “micro-donations” has taken hold and is the standard among young, tech savvy leaders. It’s how movement building organizations like Avaaz raise most of its $17m budget. A broad, transnational member base making micro-donations is how The Rules ( hopes to finance itself sustainably, and conduct rapid response appeals. And on the latter, there’s a real knowledge base already in practice based on disaster response – at least for raising, if not spending wisely.

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