Candy, ghosts…and year-end donations?

It’s that time of year! While many of us have been gathering treats for the goblins and ghouls who will appear at our doors tonight, fundraising and communications professionals at nonprofits across the country have been anxiously preparing their year-end fundraising appeals.

Why “anxiously”? Because the year-end appeal often makes the difference between a strong program next year and a struggle to achieve the mission. And because the sorry state and uncertain future of the economy is having an effect on public support for the work of nonprofits.


Freaky: the fact that every store is about to begin blaring holiday tunes. Not freaky: deciding which organizations to support with any year-end donations you make! (Photo: Micah Sittig, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Year-end giving is a tradition that brings satisfaction to many families year after year. But sometimes the number of requests can be overwhelming. If you receive envelopes or emails day after day, you might wonder, “Is this much fundraising really necessary?” or “How could this possibly be efficient?”

It is necessary. Donations are an important way for organizations to get the money they need for all the things that contribute to valuable programs – from the vegetables at the soup kitchen to research on the root causes of problems.

But it’s true that fundraising could be a lot more efficient. And often, attentive donors can help on that front. If you’re planning to donate this year, here are some tips to help make sure your year-end contributions do the most good.

  • Have a plan. Decide in advance how much you can afford to give this year and what causes or groups you want to help.
  • Take the initiative. If you already know the groups you want to support, make your gifts without waiting to be asked. You can send along a request that the groups you support not solicit you further; that’s a good idea at any time of year. But if you do get a year-end appeal anyway you can recycle it with a clear conscience…or pass it along to a friend who might share your interest.
  • Be clear. If you get a year-end appeal from an organization that’s not in your plan, let them know and ask that they not send you fundraising appeals. When you do send a gift, suggest that the recipient limit any future appeals to you. Helping an organization avoid the costs of making a pointless request is a small but real contribution to their work.
  • Consider volunteering. Many organizations offer special, expanded services at this time of year. Joining such a project adds a new dimension to the celebrations of the season.
  • And this year, if you can, maybe stretch a little. Nonprofits in every community are helping people cope with the effects of the bad economy. If you’re doing ok, do a little bit more so they can do their jobs better.

Let us know if you have tips to add – either from the nonprofit fundraising perspective, or the individual donor point of view (maybe both!). And happy Halloween!

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"Open up philanthropy": Lucy Bernholz at PdF 2011

Last week I got to attend the annual Personal Democracy Forum (PdF), a conference that crams two days full of nearly 40 talks and panels that explore technology’s impact on politics and government.

This is the first of a few posts about PdF11 takeaways that might be of of particular interest to our community. This one is about Lucy Bernholz; watch the video of her talk here.


Lucy Bernholz blogs at

“I need your help to open up philanthropy,” said self-described philanthropy wonk Lucy Bernholz. How many of us, Bernholz asked, have researched a nonprofit on GreatNonprofits or GuideStar, backed a project on Kickstarter, or made a loan through Kiva? Thanks to sites like these, we can access vetted information about the causes we care about, feel confident that diligence has been done, and add our own testimonials so that others can do the same.

Contrast that, Bernholz said, with the experience of applying for a grant. We spend hours on end researching, editing, and laying out our ideas and plans to do something specific in hopes of making our communities better. At long last, we submit the application and – then what?

From Bernholz’s transcript:

In a best-case scenario, the due diligence by each funder unleashes one grant.

In the usual scenario, the due diligence results in no grant and no information sharing on what was proposed.

Imagine being able to unlock the vaults on what the Carnegie Corporation, literally the grand daddy of American foundations, knows about after school programs […] or what we could learn from the Gates Foundation about improving libraries or distributing vaccines.

But how do we get foundations to share this information? Bernholz pointed out that several foundations and organizations are already leading by example: from the DonorsChoose hackathon supported by Bing to the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, “which feeds all of its grants out in an RSS feed as well as on Twitter.” She implored the crowd at PdF11 (mostly tech geeks) to do three things: ask foundations to share the data they have about what’s been proposed and what works; give them permission to share your information when you apply for grants; and show them what their data can look like. If we do this, we can give communities and planners access to a vast amount of information about good ideas and good projects – the ones that are funded as well as those that aren’t.

Do you work in philanthropy? Or do you rely on foundations to run your programs? I’d love to hear what you think of Bernholz’s talk, specifically:

  • Why aren’t more foundations already sharing data like this? What are the main barriers and challenges?
  • Do you believe, as Bernholz does, that “we need to hold foundations – which hold private resources in trust for the public good – accountable to that public good”?
  • Do you have a favorite example of a foundation’s transparency leading to positive change in a community or around an issue?

The full transcript and video are here.

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An easy way to get more donations

Wondering what donors want?

Well, what do you want – when you make a gift to a friend, a wedding couple, a grandchild, or a community organization?

The first thing I want is just a “thank you.” Often that’s enough. And if I want anything more, it’s to know that my gift made a difference was welcomed and put to use.

Penelope Burk is famous in fundraising circles for researching what donors want. As Guidestar reported last summer in its newsletter, Burk found that organizations where board members call key donors to say “thanks” see an increase in donations of 39% —without anyone doing any asking at all.


From vistamommy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Saying thank you—quickly!—is the proven “donor retention strategy” that seems to fall off the edge of the desk a little too often.  When coupled with a brief message about the difference donations make to the success of the organization, it’s about the best thing a nonprofit can do to keep the flow of donations coming.

Not every organization can use this exact technique.  But every organization can think about what donors want, which is probably the more direct route to getting what the organization needs – more donations.

Have you tried having board members call your supporters? What works for you?

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Why do people donate?


From Flickr user Alan/Falcon (Creative Commons)

Hope Consulting wanted to find out why people donate to good causes, and specifically what would encourage people to focus on supporting organizations that get results. What they found is published online in “Money for Good” (a pdf). According to the study, here’s how the universe of donors divides up:

  • 23% support organizations that have helped them or a loved one in the past
  • 18% give to well-known organizations, often through payroll deductions
  • 16% give to organizations they feel are making the greatest social impact
  • 16% choose organizations that match their religious beliefs
  • 14% look for small organizations where their gift makes a bigger difference
  • 13% give to organizations where they know people or where their friends also give

Only a third of the people they surveyed reported doing any research before giving, and nearly two-thirds of those donors do the research only to check up on an organization they have already decided to support (to “validate” the choice, in the researchers’ words).

Hope Neighbor, the leader of the consulting group, described herself in a profile on FastCompany with a bit of chagrin about her own habits. “I am mired in inertia,” she said, “and I definitely don’t choose the best organization. The way we act is different than the way we think we act. It’s true for me as for any of the people surveyed.”

My takeaways?

Donors: think about what you want to accomplish with your gifts and then spend some time exploring whether the recipients are aligned with those goals. (Here’s how.) It won’t take long to put you in the top ranks of intentional donors.

Organizations: your work isn’t going to appeal to every group of donors, so figure out which donor-profile fits your work and your mission. Once you’ve done that, make sure they are able to find the information they look for on your website, in your “support us” mailings, and in the presentations you make. If your messages don’t match what your core supporters are looking for, you’re wasting your time – and disappointing people who might find great satisfaction in supporting your work.

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Survey says: What's the state of the nonprofit sector today?


Screen shot from the Nonprofit Finance Fund website

Do you have a few minutes to fill out a survey? If so, you can help the Nonprofit Finance Fund understand what’s happening now, in order to better advocate on behalf of the sector’s needs. The survey gets a good deal of attention from funders, media, and nonprofits themselves, so it’s up to all of us* to make it strong and accurate.

Watch the “awesome video” about why the Nonprofit Finance Fund is conducting its State of the Nonprofit Sector survey for the third year in a row. (If you prefer, there’s the “moving drama” version or the “terrifying horror” version to watch instead; to tell the truth, all three are pretty much the same, but the different soundtracks are good for a smile.) The videos give a glimpse of the results from the 2010 survey and look ahead to what can be learned from people who complete the 2011 survey between now and February 15th.

You can take the survey at

Want to view the results from 2010? The full results from last year are in this file (pdf).

*If you’re not the right person to be taking this survey, you might pass along the link to someone at a nonprofit you care about who can answer the questions. The more data from the real world the survey collects, the better the information the Nonprofit Finance Fund can offer to funders, policy makers, and anyone else who cares about this work.

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'Tis the season: Tips for end-of-year donations

It’s December, which means you’ve probably started getting requests for donations from worthy causes. Here in the U.S., the income tax rules and the holiday spirit both nudge in the same direction: give what you can, before January 1.

Here are three tips for making gifts that matter. (And matter they do, no matter the size!)


From Flickr user Alexandra Campo

Tip #1: Understand the tax rules.

If you choose to itemize deductions on your income tax return and you want to include your charitable contributions in the mix, then it’s important to follow the guidelines that the law, and the IRS, have established:

  • the organization must be eligible (usually it will say so in the materials);
  • you’ll need a receipt or some other documentation of the amount;
  • and the gift must be made before the 1st of January to go on this year’s tax return.

There are other, more complicated, rules about larger gifts and in-kind donations. And if you don’t itemize deductions, you still get some credit in the standard deduction. These are calculated using the giving habits of all non-itemizing households. Check the IRS site if there’s anything unusual about what you’re planning to do.

Tip #2: Choose wisely.

Maybe you’re getting a lot of requests, more than you can afford to give. How do you get through the thicket of year-end appeals that tug at your generosity? If you don’t have a personal philanthropy plan, you can make a simple one:

  • Decide on an amount you’re willing, and able, to give. The average household donates about 2 percent of disposable income each year.
  • Consider the organizations you already know, and know you want to support, so you can decide how much to give to each of them.  Then you’ll know how much you might have left over to respond to new requests.
  • If you’re thinking of giving to a new organization, ask yourself “What does this organization do?” and “Do I admire how they do it?” With nearly 2 million nonprofits at work in the U.S., there are lots to choose from.  Looking at websites, reading fundraising appeals, and searching online to see what others have said about the group are good ways to see how strongly the goals, and the methods, appeal to you.

Tip #3: Maximize.

Financial data—the sort of information many charity “watchdogs” focus in on—can only take you so far.  Some causes are hard to administer, others are hard to raise money for.  Spending less than counterpart organizations doesn’t necessarily mean greater efficiency, it may just mean a different approach to the problem.

There are some things donors can do to help put the maximum resources to work, though:

  • Respond quickly to requests, especially to renewal notices.  It costs money to prepare mailings so a quick response, even if it’s a “not this year,” is doing the organization a favor.
  • Consider making fewer, larger gifts. That will focus your support on program work, not processing costs.
  • Positive you won’t ever support Organization X? Ask them to take you off the mailing list so they won’t waste their money on appeals addressed to you.

Finding the money to build stronger, healthier, more lively communities is hard work. With a little preparation and some thought, your year-end gifts can support that work and make an important difference for causes and organizations you care about.

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Discounted price for the NextGen:Charity conference in NYC

We’re partnering with NextGen:Charity for this year’s leaders in nonprofits and philanthropy innovation conference, November 18-19 in the heart of Times Square. Our founder and executive director Ami Dar will speak at the conference, and our blog readers can register for a discounted rate.

The conference is oriented towards leaders of the world’s top nonprofits and “aimed to help you run your organization more effectively and efficiently, and connect with donors and your community more powerfully.” Other speakers will include our friend Nancy Lublin, founder of and author of Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business; Randi Zuckerberg from Facebook; and Scott Harrison, founder and president of charity:water.

To learn more about speakers, workshops, and attendees, click here. And if you want to be there yourself, buy your ticket through this link for 20% off the standard entry rate.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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New GuideStar Report: The Effect of The Economy on the Nonprofit Sector

Almost everyone has felt the effects of the less than stellar economic performance in the first half of this year. This is no less true for the majority of nonprofit organizations as seen in GuideStar’s report on The Effect of The Economy on the Nonprofit Sector for the first half of 2010 released last week.

Nonprofit organizations have been particularly affected this year on two fronts. With unemployment rates barely moving and the number of people coming off of jobless benefits rising, folks have increasingly turned to local community organizations to help fill the gap in services that they can no longer afford. Sixty-three percent of surveyed organizations reported an increase in demand for their services between January 1, 2010 and May 31, 2010. At the same time, more than 40% of organizations reported a decrease in donations and other funding streams. The strain on nonprofits has been so high that 17% of organizations had to cut programs and services and 8% said they were in imminent danger of closing.

From flickr user jasoon (Creative Commons)

If you’ve been considering donating to an organization whose work you support, you might want to consider donating now. You can find financial information on the nonprofit of your choice at

If you’re worried about the nonprofits in your community but not currently in a position to donate, there are other ways to help. About a third of organizations reported that they have increased their reliance on volunteers as a way to support their programmatic work and not cut services. You can search for a local volunteer opportunity here — and remember, volunteering is a great asset in career development if you find yourself temporarily out of work.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Book Review: Everyday Philanthropy

Book cover image from

How to Be an Everyday Philanthropist offers hundreds of ideas for anyone with a surplus of energy to commit to good works. Constructed from the doer’s point of view, the emphasis is on the huge variety of ways anyone can recognize a need “and find a way to fill it.”

There’s an engaging autobiographical quality about Nicole Bouchard Boles’ book. She reports its origins in curiosity about how to make good use of her time while pregnant with her first child — and finding great satisfaction (and a little personal prep) in serving as a baby snuggler at a nearby hospital. The lists of strategies and resources that follow each of the eleven chapters draw on the research she did to find ways to anyone can use time, connections, talents and even trash to make the world a better place. The entries range from the familiar (Habitat for Humanity, say, or our own to the wonderfully obscure and specialized. A bonus: these last will might inspire a reader to start a personal search for the absolutely perfect form of philanthropy that can match an interest, a hobby, or the dream of a lifetime.

When surveys ask people why they haven’t been more active as volunteers, a common answer is “Well, nobody asked me.” Perhaps the most important message in How to Be an Everyday Philanthropist is “Don’t wait to be asked.” In less than 200 pages, the book demonstrates pretty conclusively that there’s needs to be met, and satisfactions to be had, from looking around to find your own niche as a philanthropist.

Some of the suggestions really are simplicity at its simplest: play the word games at daily and your small distraction contributes to a steady flow of nourishment to some of the world’s hungriest people. And some provide useful and good humored reminders that some things may not be quite so simple after a more careful look: a list of ways to prepare household goods before dropping them off at the donation site will be useful to all but the most conscientious. (The list, on page 76, includes not just washing and airing clothes but sorting books by category to “save a volunteer a lot of work” on the receiving end.)

You can order How to Be an Everyday Philanthropist here, on (The book was published by Workman Publishing in 2009).
[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Do a Little Bit More: Become a Philanthropist

"Calculator," by Flickr user Anssi Koskinen (Creative Commons)

There are two routes to becoming a philanthropist.

You can play a real-world version of Monopoly, gather up all the railroads and the dark-blue leases and then flip the board over and start playing Give-it-all-away. (Note to Parker Bros.: You’re welcome to the idea of marketing a version of this venerable game that models generosity on one side of the board and acquisitiveness on the other.)

Or you can sit down with a blank sheet of paper and make yourself a plan for personal philanthropy. Having a plan is all it takes. Philanthropists come in all sizes, shapes and colors. They are the people who think carefully about what kind of community and what kind of world we should share. Once they’ve done that, these people are in a stronger position to put energy, attention and money to work to move things in that direction.

Oh no, you might say, these days I don’t have enough money to make that kind of thinking worth bothering with. I’ll just give what I can, when somebody asks, and hope I’m making a difference.

Well, the reports from people who have made personal philanthropy plans suggest there are good reasons for making a plan even when the amounts of time and money you have to think about are small. Here are a few:

  • You can start with the kinds of change you want to see happen, the causes you want to advance. Then you can choose a moment to check out organizations that can help you multiply the effect of your volunteer time or your donations. ( is, obviously, one good place to start exploring these possibilities.)
  • Once you find organizations that match your goals, you can focus your philanthropy—of whatever size and form—on them. Everyone who studies nonprofit finances says fewer larger gifts and genuinely committed volunteers are the keys to efficiency and effectiveness. And those are outcomes every philanthropist wants to see.
  • And—a surprisingly important result for many people who have followed this route—you’ll have a strong and respectful answer when you’re asked to contribute to a cause or organization that isn’t part of your plan. You can say to a friend, or to someone who interrupts your dinner with a fund-raising call (grrrrr!), “I respect the work you’re doing but I have a plan for what I can give this year and I’m sorry that it doesn’t have room for anything more right now.” If you have any enthusiasm for the cause at all, you can add something like “If you send me some information about your work, I’ll put it in the file so when I’m thinking about next year I’ll be able to remember your ideas.”

If you become a philanthropist—by the simple step of making up your own plan for how and where to give—you gain confidence that you’re supporting the causes you care most about, you maximize the effect of your gifts, and you have a ready-made way to turn away appeals that might otherwise make you uncomfortable. In the list of ways to do a little bit more, this one seems like a slam dunk.

If you’d like to share your personal philanthropic plan with someone, you can send it to; we might even do a follow-up post with some examples (with your permission, of course).

This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]