After 26 years of running the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Bill Bolling has a good handle on how to mine contacts for cash. He has long known, for example, that volunteers are generous not only with their time, but also with their money. He has also taken a long view of fundraising, cultivating high school and college students as future donors. “They’re going to be givers one day, so if we catch them early and develop their awareness of how they can help, we’ll have lifelong givers,” says Bolling, the food bank’s founder and executive director.
Yet in countless training sessions and fundraising campaigns, Bolling has been hard-pressed to prove what he knew from experience. Vindicating his common sense is a research article published in the September 2005 issue of the American Review of Public Administration. Authors David M. Van Slyke and Arthur C. Brooks, both of Syracuse University, used a survey of 2,545 greater Atlanta residents, as well as interviews with a dozen nonprofit executives in Atlanta, to explore the habits and motives of charitable Americans. Their findings suggest several untapped sources of donations.
For example, while Bolling recognizes the financial potential of volunteers, many fundraisers have ignored them in the belief that someone who gives time won’t also give money. “We showed that’s patently untrue,” says Van Slyke, whose article urges nonprofits to look first among their ranks of volunteers for new sources of money. The authors’ research likewise confirms Bolling’s observation that it’s worth it to foster young people as donors, because even small donors give more as their incomes increase.
Overall, Van Slyke and Brooks’ findings show that between the wealthy mega-donors whom nonprofits traditionally seek out and the $25-a-year donors whom they take for granted lies a huge pool of “average donors” whose individual characteristics – and potential generosity – deserve more attention.
Their study also topples a few myths. For example, fundraisers often believe that African Americans give less to charity than any other demographic group, and thus aren’t likely to respond to solicitations. In fact, Van Slyke and Brooks found that though African Americans contribute fewer dollars overall to charitable causes, they actually give a higher percentage of their individual incomes, especially when the causes are faith-based. The authors also found that women tend to give more readily than men and are increasingly making philanthropic decisions independently of husbands and fathers.
Philanthropy isn’t just a matter of academics for the authors, both of whom worked for nonprofit groups before becoming university professors. And Van Slyke is now putting his findings to work, encouraging his three children to participate in such philanthropic activities as a three-mile “crop walk” to raise money for hunger. “When you make [philanthropy] a family activity,” he said, “your kids grow up thinking it isn’t just a once a year type of thing, but fundamental to their contribution to society.”