Rousting the Rich: Inspiring the Wealthy to Give More
On the day of thanks, my blog was still due. I could’ve written some blathering tripe about giving thanks or I could lambast the wealthy. And I was in a mood—anticipating political debates over the Thanksgiving table. Even Adele’s “Hello” wouldn’t help keep the biscuits on the table instead of in the air.
It’s well-known that the wealthy give less, as a percentage of income, than the less affluent. According to Ken Stern’s “With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give,” the top 20 percent of earners give about 1.3 percent of their incomes to charity; the lowest 20 percent of earners give 3.2 percent of their incomes.
How come? Otis Fulton, who also happens to be Turnkey’s staff psychologist and my husband, loves a good question. Prior to going to bed the night before Thanksgiving, I planted this seed in my beloved’s mind: “I wonder why the affluent give less?”
Upon awakening the next morning, my inbox was flooded with references and links to other people’s ideas and research about the answer (Otis at work). Over far too much coffee Thanksgiving morning, we read and discussed the potential reasons and interventions.
We read a lot, and here’s what became clear to us: You give to what you can see, to what you experience, to what is in proximity to you. The wealthy give less, but what they do give, they give to what is in front of them—the opera, museums, universities, hospitals, etc. The less wealthy give to what is in front of them—hunger, disease, abuse, needy children, etc. And regardless of income, exposure to need creates empathy. What the wealthy often lack is exposure.
One interesting finding that makes us believe that giving level and beneficiary is about proximity is that there is a difference in giving among the wealthy. Those in more heterogeneous neighborhoods give more than those in insular, homogeneous neighborhoods.
One might think that conservatives give less than liberals. In fact, poor conservatives give, by percentage of income, more than wealthy liberals. But guess what: poor conservatives live where? They live in proximity to poor people. It is not about party affiliation. It is about proximity.
How can we get more wealthy people to give more? We do it by gaining proximity. We know that if you put someone’s body in action, his or her mind will surely follow. If we concentrated on getting more wealthy folks to interact in volunteer capacities, for example, we create proximity.
How often do we ask the wealthy to deliver food, to show up with a hammer, to work a disaster? If we did ask them to participate in mission delivery, we would create proximity and the propensity to give bigger.
On the other hand, how often have we seen the museum gala committee, people who spent countless hours deciding what color the decorations should be and on whom they could lean to buy a table, in the society pages? They are giving as they know how, and I applaud them for it.
We are failing our organizations and the wealthy by not creating the same proximity for our missions. I know a dollar buys more than an hour of service donated, which is why we don’t often ask for service. But that is shortsighted in terms of fundraising. We have to get them to “do” in proximity to the problem before the big money shows up.
If we took this path, our fundraising communication plans would change and our volunteer managers would become more important.
- Ask for a little money.
- Ask for a little more money.
- Ask for even more money.
- Ask for an action to create proximity.
- Ask for more action to create more proximity.
- Ask for even more action to create even more proximity.
- Ask for money (and you probably won’t even need to 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 the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," 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 regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." 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.