Self-portrait of a donor.

I’m always curious about donor thinking and like to explore the why’s of giving. As there is one donor I know pretty well, I thought I’d dissect her giving. heart-2

Taking stock

Before the year draws to an end, I review my all my charitable contributions to see how I’m doing and to be sure I’ve haven’t forgotten any of my favorite causes.

I can do this pretty quickly because throughout the year as I make gifts I’ve been recording them on my “Contributions” spreadsheet. That way, I can see at a glance who I remembered and who I forgot.  I find this a lot easier than my old system of searching through my canceled checks and credit card statements. The spreadsheet also helps me remember when I receive a new appeal if I’ve already reached my giving target for that organization.  And it has really helped speed up my tax preparation.

Giving schedules

The end of year is a real cash crunch for me as our house insurance, car insurance, life insurance are all due. There are also holiday gifts and plane tickets to get my sons back from college. So it’s not a great time for me to be making donations.

I’ve been trying to spread my giving out throughout the year. Larger gifts I’ve been doing in installments or at times that I’m feeling more cash flush. I really don’t love putting gifts on credit cards as I’d rather all my giving went to the organizations I support.

But at the end of the year, if I’ve missed an important cause, out comes the credit card.

Giving Benchmarks

One of my speculations about giving is that people would be more generous if they had better benchmarks.

A few days ago my daughter shared that she was going to set a person tithing formula for her giving. Many faiths have a “tithing requirement” that sets a benchmark for personal support. States that have high percentages of their population in faiths that tithe seem to report higher overall giving. Yet most of us don’t view our charitable giving in this way.

In 1987 Independent Sector launched a campaign to Give Five, encouraging individuals to give 5% of their income and five hours a week to the causes they cared about.

Today, the average US donor gives to charity in these amounts:

  • Low income households give about 4.5% of their income
  • Middle class households give about 2.5%
  • Higher income households give about 3%

So how does our household compare?

If I look at tax-deductible gifts, our total contributions are just over4% of our adjusted gross income. When I include the non-tax deductible gifts we make by supporting charitable events, that puts our total contributions to public charities and membership in advocacy organizations at 5.8% of our adjusted gross income.

I never feel like I’m giving enough (here I default to a typical excuse: Tuition payments for two sons in college). Yet, my giving looks decent compared to the national averages.

The Inventory

The top tier

Because I strongly believe that board members should make leadership gifts, it’s not surprising that the organizations on whose boards I sit are at the top of my giving. They include:

  • Latino Dollars for Scholars Foundation of RI. I’m on the advisory council and am just passionate about these exciting and promising future leaders of my Community and Country. While I’m not really a big scholarship person, we sponsor a scholarship because we’ve both been so moved by the personal testimony of what a supportive community means to these students.
  • Blackstone Academy Charter School. I pay this gift in two installments. Just over a year ago I asked to join the the board of this compelling public charter high school and former client that serves kids from neighboring Pawtucket and Central Falls. I thought I could make a difference. I am a huge supporter of public education and diverse student bodies. All my kids attended public schools and they continue to thrive. Yet, I’ve also seen first hand the incredible difference that small schools make, especially in the societal, social and emotional development of their students, and especially for kids who didn’t start with the same privileges as mine. All public school kids deserve public charters.
  • Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. Though I rotated off the board about two years ago, I’m still passionate about the role of the public humanities in enabling us to find meaning in our life and to better understand our communities and world. In the world of charities, state humanities councils are a bit of a underdog that need our support. I pay this charitable gift in two installments and through an event sponsorship of the annual celebration.

Added up, that’s about a third of my giving.

Level two

  • ACLU and AIUSA. Because protecting civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad is absolutely essential to a free society, I’m a member of the American Civil Liberties Union (not tax-deductible) and Amnesty International USA (tax-deductible). I have been very privileged to work with their local affiliates first hand. I also  make tax-deductible gifts to both the national and RI ACLU affiliates through the ACLU Foundation. I give an annual gift to AIUSA Group 49 in Providence during the annual Write-a-Thon for Human Rights.
  • WaterFire Providence. I have such profound respect for the genius and generosity of its artist creator Barnaby Evans and WaterFire’s critical role in rejuvenating my hometown, Providence, that I give to this one-of-a-kind arts and community building hybrid.
  • WRNI. What can I say. My kids could be in the ad that’s running about how NPR was always on the radio at home growing up. I admit that I’m a lifelong junkie of its brilliant news and talk shows. Every day I find a new connection to my life and work. And they’ve convinced me that my gift should at least be as much as the subscription to my daily newspaper. (Besides, I’d hate if one of my kids turned me in for not giving thus triggering an embarrassing phone call from Ira Glass.)
  • Save The Bay and Audubon Society of RI. My environmental donations used to be spread among more organizations, but now they go exclusively locally. I worked at Save The Bay for five years and hike the properties of ASRI.

Flotsam and jetsam

  • Colleges. I personally think that private colleges consume way too much of US charitable giving and serve a largely privileged class of people. But I also appreciate the role that college played in moving this blue collar girl up the societal ladder, so I can’t leave off  my undergrad alma mater Clark University and my grad alma mater Antioch University New England. But please, children’s colleges, stop calling me for gifts. I’m not going to give to you. You are their colleges and they can give to you when and if they desire.
  • Women’s and Reproductive Rights Organizations. While I’m still an strong feminist and pro choice advocate, there are fewer organizations on this list. But it’s not as if I’m ignoring them entirely as AIUSA and the ACLU are strong international and national advocates for women’s rights.
  • Disease organizations. Not my giving thing. The only gifts I make here are from time to time to honor special friends who ask. So if you work at a disease organization, it’s really fruitless to solicit me directly.
  • Peace and Justice. While near and dear to my heart, I’ve also largely moved away from some of the national organizations and sublimated with my above mentioned human and civil rights orgs.
  • Clients. We support a number of current clients with smaller gifts, usually in the form of non-tax deductible ad books, event tickets and raffles.
  • Inkind. We donate our usual share of used clothing and household items to different organizations, and used books to our local library branch. (Jon does the cash donation to the library)
  • Professional associations. I give a small annual gift to the local endowment of the Association of Fundraising Professionals to honor my departed colleague Herb Kaplan for whom this endowment is now named. The endowment helps provide training scholarships to local folks starting out in the profession. I only give a tiny gift to the national Foundation of AFP. It was more but I dropped the amount after their PAC contributed to a right wing, homophobic Senate candidate that I didn’t think met the values espoused by the organization even if he supported the CARE Act. I still give a small gift so I can repeat my protest each year.

Pet Peeve: Gayle’s giving is not Jon’s giving

So, just because I use the joint checking account doesn’t mean that Jon is making the charitable gift.  Rule of thumb: if I’m signing, it’s my gift unless I tell you otherwise. If you don’t know, please ask.

Second Pet Peeve: Taking me for granted

I used to give to my local alternative fund. They stopped asking me or thanking me. I stopped giving. Ditto other gifts that have been reduced over the years or eliminated entirely.


Let’s save that for another day or I’ll never finish this blog.

Quick Analysis

I’m recognizing that more and more of my giving is going to local organizations. That’s a 180 from my giving 20 years ago.

What’s a bit shocking about this is that I’ve always been very interested in national and global issues. So it’s pretty amazing to see my giving pattern assume the identity of  most Americans… predominately local, backyard giving. I’d attribute the switch to my personal involvement and readier accessibility to the need and the work.

I also have been consciously trying to move away from my historical pattern of lots of small gifts to many organizations in favor of larger gifts to fewer organizations. Breaks my heart to say no to any organization I care about, but I think the bigger gifts have more impact and reduce the cost of administering to me.

So that’s what I’m thinking as I give. What do you do? What else would you like to know?

4 responses to Self-portrait of a donor.

  1. Jeff Brooks

    The important thing to take away from this is that fundraisers shouldn’t look at donors in a vacuum: Your donors are doing a lot more than just giving to you! You are just one piece of a very complex puzzle in any donor’s philanthropic life.

    The danger of self-portraits is of overgeneralizing. Something that’s true about any one of us isn’t necessarily true about most donors. (The lack of a house of worship among your charities is extremely unusual for someone as charitably active as you, Gayle.)

    Thanks for this interesting look at real life.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Thanks for your comments Jeff. And thanks for your cautionary reminder — my giving is uniquely about me. One of our challenges as fundraisers is to understand how our own organizations fit (or don’t fit) into a donors “complex puzzle of philanthropic life.”

      Best wished for the new year.

  2. Pamela Grow

    This is a very insightful post Gayle!

    Both of your pet peeves, quite naturally, fall into the category of stewardship – an often neglected area of fundraising. In my work with smaller organizations I’ve often found that stewardship falls through the cracks simply because no strategic plan has been created for it.

    I enjoyed, too, seeing my feelings about private colleges echoed here. My donations tend to go to causes and to organizations that create opportunities for equality and justice.

    One of my favorite books, and one that you might enjoy if you haven’t read it is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

  3. Gayle Gifford Post Author

    Thanks, Pam.
    I agree. Stewarding donors always seems like an afterthought, rather than a critical ingredient to fundraising success. If fundraisers analyzed their giving programs and put their first dollars and energy where they would see the greatest return, it would be in stewarding the donors they already have.

    I sensed that there were many reasons we were so sympatico… sounds like our quest for equality and social justice is another.

    Will add the Cialdini book to my nightstand.

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