COVID-19 Giving: Age Isn’t Just a Number for Fundraisers
There’s an old saying about collegiate athletes: “The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.”
It turns out that the same thing applies to nonprofit supporters.
According to Blackbaud’s “2019 Charitable Giving Report,” the average donor in the U.S. is 63 years old. But that single statistic really doesn’t tell the whole story. Digging deeper, 22% of donors are aged 55 to 64, and a whopping 46% are 65 and older. Doing the math, the under 55 age group accounts for only 32% of donors.
Some attribute this huge disparity in giving to simple economics. By age 55, people can become more charitable because they begin to have extra money. Their children are (usually) independent, and their homes are sometimes paid for. After 55 giving ramps up until age 65, where it levels off.
Here’s the point: People at this age give because they can do so without altering their lifestyle. That’s the definition of “disposable income.” The $25 that I give to the Humane Society of the United States each month means that I have to sacrifice exactly… nothing.
What about major gifts? Twenty-five million dollars to my college’s capital campaign? (UVA need not contact me; I’m merely using this as an example.) Same thing, the people that make these gifts still have their second (or third and fourth) homes and wealth management advisors to look after their portfolios.
The Better Business Bureau released a survey last month sent to donors to 118 charities. Given what we know about donor demographics, we shouldn’t be surprised that 31 percent of respondents said they plan to give more to charities, and 52 percent said that they plan to maintain their pre-COVID-19 levels of giving.
We Become More Altruistic As We Age
In addition to economic factors, it turns out that older people also have greater motivation to give. University of Oregon psychologist Dr. Ulrich Mayr investigated the theory that people become more altruistic as they age. Participants in a study were asked to lie in MRI scanners and look at screens that displayed different scenarios. Some saw that $20 was being transferred into their bank accounts. Others saw that $20 was going to a local food bank.
Observing money going to charity boosted activity in the reward center of the brain for many subjects. They felt rewarded just seeing someone in need being helped. For about half of the subjects, this activity was greater when the money went to charity than it was when it went into their bank accounts. Researchers described these people as “neural altruists.”
A related study featured 80 participants between the ages of 20 and 64 who were similar in terms of their backgrounds. The number of neural altruists steadily increased with age. At age 35, less than 25% were altruists, compared to 75% of subjects aged 55 and older. In addition to the neural markers, the older individuals scored higher on questionnaires for traits like agreeableness and empathy.
The reason for this increase in altruism with age isn’t known. Perhaps knowing that you have more runway behind you than ahead makes you more concerned about the greater good.
Regardless of the reason, the demographics of philanthropy have implications for fundraising in the age of COVID-19. It turns out that the overwhelming majority of donors are the ones who are least likely to be affected by the pandemic. Many are retired, unaffected by layoffs. The spigot for their disposable income will not be turned off.
Plus, these donors are altruists. In their brains.
The best thing that we can do for them, and our missions right now, is to reach out and show them the many ways that they’re needed. They’re ready and able to respond. All we have to do is ask.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.