In an era where philanthropy experts point to the power of funders and donors making bigger gifts over longer time periods to fewer causes, it’s easy to believe that small gifts don’t matter.
But in cases of humanitarian aid and disaster relief, where large-scale change means responding quickly to needs across entire cities and states, flows of small gifts become the lifeblood of campaigns to save lives, stem catastrophe, and repair communities, according to Dr. Genevieve Shaker, associate professor of philanthropic studies.
In 2017, approximately 31 percent of U.S. households gave on average $80 to disaster relief. Twenty-nine percent of U.S. households donated $83 on average for disaster giving in 2018.
Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast in 2017 and caused $125 billion in damage. The American Red Cross immediately began providing immediate shelter, food, and other necessary items to people affected by the hurricane. More than one million donors gave gifts under $100 to the American Red Cross, contributing $25 million to relief funds.
In 2018, 3.6 million people in the U.S. alone gave over $400 million on Giving Tuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. The average amount donated was approximately $100. Since 2012, Giving Tuesday has raised over $1 billion online.
In addition, small gifts can be a way for donors to get to know an organization, which can inspire larger future donations. Small gifts develop relationships and can be repeatable, such as effecting systematic support via monthly giving.
In an example by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a longtime donor gave more than $10 million to UNICEF USA in Chicago. He regularly received updates and event invites from the regional UNICEF office, even when he was giving at much smaller amounts every year.
While not every donor has the capacity to donate at the major gift level, Dr. Shaker notes that it’s important to craft strategies that match the audience and the expected gift level.
“Nonprofits need a fundraising plan that cover all of the gift levels,” she said. “Are the strategies you’re using to earn the $100 gifts cost-effective for your organization? How did previous solicitation exercises go and what needs to be done differently? It’s important for fundraisers to evaluate those strategies over time.”
She also advises nonprofits to invest in stewardship and communications for donors who give gifts of all sizes: “Craft a holistic plan that not only considers acquisition by inviting the donor to make her or his first gift, but creates a good experience for she or he after that gift is made.”
Dr. Shaker encourages nonprofits to think about tools to keep donors engaged and involved in an organization in a small way.
“In other ways, think of creative ways to show them what their gift did at the level that they gave it,” she said. “Not only will they appreciate the ‘thank-you,’ you’ll also be able to see which donors engage with and have an additional interest in the organization.”
Overall, Dr. Shaker encourages organizations to think about the whole fundraising process, and not just the individual efforts: “Small gifts matter to every organization. As fundraisers, we need to make sure that these donors feel valued and that their gifts matter.”
Read the original myth “Small Gifts Don’t Matter” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s article “Eight Myths of U.S. Philanthropy.”