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.
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a book, Dollar Dash, on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.