I guess you have to commend philanthropy’s paper of record – the Chronicle of Philanthropy – for trying to make fundraising data exciting with its January 17 article, Group Estimates Philanthropy Rose 13% in 2013, Clashing With ‘Giving USA’.
The article pitted estimates of charitable giving from the relatively new Atlas of Giving against the results of the long-time resource Giving USA. Forbes’ philanthropic and social good contributor, Tom Watson, described the article as a “philanthropic food fight” – a creative headline that quickly spread across philanthropic and nonprofit social media.
The Chronicle’s article drew defensive explanations from the CEO of the Atlas of Giving and the leaders of Giving USA.* If you don’t want to read the details, the arguments boil down to differing methodologies for tracking contributions and competition around monetizing those methodologies. If you do want to be geeky, you can read more about the methods at Atlas of Giving, Giving USA, and for good measure, the Blackbaud Index.
Here’s the larger issue: all of the methods miss
the forest for the trees the buffet for the appetizer tray.
Ultimately, these resources primarily focus on giving to incorporated charitable (501(c)(3)) organizations. They reinforce a narrow definition of the term “philanthropy,” imprisoning it within artificial tax and legal boundaries. It’s the same mistake made by the pundits worried about the Stubborn 2% Giving Rate – U.S. giving to charity being fairly level at 2% of GDP and 2% of disposable income.
A classic definition of philanthropy is “voluntary action for the common good.” It is the generosity you and I feel and express, and it spills far beyond tax and legal boundaries (see my previous post on this issue). This recent “food fight” over philanthropic data doesn’t fully include:
- Giving to charitable organizations that isn’t reported to the IRS – e.g. giving by people who don’t itemize on their taxes; the cash we drop into jars at counters, buckets on street corners, and collection plates of congregations; text message giving; and some crowdfunded gifts.
- Giving to organizations that aren’t 501(c)(3)s – gifts to advocacy organizations, civic organizations, and other non-charitable nonprofits. This giving may not be charitable by some people’s definitions, but it is definitely a legitimate tool for achieving a public or social result.
- Supporting the common good through gifts to individuals, unincorporated groups, artists, social enterprises, and even businesses through cash, crowdfunding platforms, and grassroots groups such as the Awesome Foundation and Sunday Soup. As just one example, an annual report on crowdfunding platforms shows about $2.7 billion flowing raised in 2012, with 38% going to “social causes” and 25% going to arts and environment projects. The public version of the report doesn’t show the percentage going to traditional charities.
- Support for people in need and families through remittances instead of charities (a World Bank report estimates worldwide remittances at $401 billions in 2012).
I’ll grant that Giving USA and others know that they don’t track those forms of philanthropy and that tracking those forms is much harder than tracking gifts to 501(c)(3) charitable organizations. However, I’m increasingly convinced that these data resources – and the media hits they generate:
Can distort public perceptions about philanthropy, further separating the concept from a value and action connected to everyday people and maybe reinforcing philanthropy and its attending tax benefits as a privilege of “the 1%.”
May display a lack of cultural competency, as the data collection methods undercount the giving patterns of the growing percentages of non-Caucasian populations and immigrants in America.
Will become less accurate over time as Millennials, and perhaps other generations, increasingly express their financial commitment to the common good outside of the charitable sector and tax-advantaged giving.
What do you think? Are these data resources useful as-is, or do we need something more expansive?
* Full transparency: I was born, raised, and educated in Indiana. Shortly after we Hoosiers learn to walk and/or drink beer, the Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy pours fundraising knowledge and data into our heads. I count I.U. staff as mentors, colleagues, and occasional fellow beer drinkers in my philanthropic career.
2/20/14 update: Giving USA and Atlas of Giving are facing off in an online radio show on Feb. 21 that will be archived for download.
2 thoughts on “The one where the philanthropy data geeks got it wrong”
Thanks for the link to Tony Martignetti Nonprofit Radio, Tony! We’re expecting a lively show and I’d LOVE to have a question from you! I’ll deliver your opinion directly to the parties above. Put a comment on my blog or tweet using #NonprofitRadio.
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