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GG+A Analysis of Giving USA 2018 Annual Report: Rage Giving

If you had a chance to tune into GG+A’s recent Giving USA webinar, you’ll recall that we briefly touched on “rage giving,” the term that many in both the advancement industry and media have coined to describe the surge in donations attributed to the Trump administration’s policies. In a year characterized by political upheaval, the media has seized on rage giving as a manifestation of America’s political polarization, painting a portrait of donors digging into their pockets for their ideals. It’s a narrative that has made rage giving arguably one of the most prominent philanthropic stories of the year.

Nonprofits like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, immigration advocacy groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and organizations associated with the March for Women and Science have benefitted from the phenomenon, seeing significant increases in their fundraising over the past year. Most recently a San Francisco couple, moved by the developments in immigration policy, started using Facebook’s fundraising feature to raise $1,500 to support a nonprofit that bonds out migrants taken into custody at the border. Their appeal has gone viral: as of this writing, they have raised close to $20 million from over 400,000 donors, including Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg and NBC’s Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon. The funds are earmarked for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which stands to raise nearly triple its gross receipts in 2016 according to the organization’s IRS 990 documentation.

With the intensity of our country’s ongoing political and cultural debate at what feels like an apex, it reasons that rage giving won’t be abating anytime soon. But what, if anything, does that mean for you? What part of this mass philanthropic response to current events applies to your organization, particularly if your mission doesn’t lend itself to these kinds of headline issues?

There are several insights that politically agnostic organizations can glean from the rage giving phenomenon, including how donors are acting in this context, their demonstrated desire for agency and social impact, and the communications and stewardship strategies nonprofits are using to engage them.

How you communicate with and steward your donors is important

2017 was a banner year for American civil society according to Giving USA. Monetary donations surpassed $400 billion for the first time, reaching $410 billion (a 5.2% increase in nominal dollars from 2016). Of the philanthropy subsectors that Giving USA reports on, the public-society benefit subsector saw the third highest growth rate at 7.8%, leading to its largest, historically recorded total as well. Online giving formed a cornerstone of this growth, with year-over-year increases exceeding that of other subsectors. According to Blackbaud’s 2017 Luminate Online Benchmark report, public affairs’ online revenue increased by 21%. A similar M+R and Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) survey using a sample of civil rights organizations showed online revenue growing by 37%.

We also know how significant the digital environment was to the rage giving case studies mentioned during GG+A’s Giving USA webinar. The ACLU raised $24 million in online donations in one weekend following the proposed “Muslim ban.” An estimated one million donors made online gifts totaling $85 million. The Women’s March raised approximately $2 million dollars through the CrowdRise platform. That online giving is so central to individuals’ response to political and social developments should be of little surprise if we consider that news is increasingly consumed through online platforms. Not only does this environment increase the speed at which news travels, it is also the space in which a significant amount of discourse now originates.

Have you thought about and planned your digital strategy across mobile, web-based, and social networks? Do you keep your content fresh, and do you have content prepared? Are you fully leveraging analytics to make data-based decisions about how to increase stewardship and maintain your relationship with first-time donors? This has been a particularly important consideration for membership organizations, many of which fall in the public-society benefit subsector. But it holds true for all nonprofits. The ACLU, for example, has taken steps to encourage donors to give on a monthly basis. The organization is also using research and donor meetings, as well as developing advocacy tools, to foster engagement.

 Donors want to make a social difference

In her January 2017 GQ article, Ashley Fetters refers to rage giving as a “lazy, middle-class form of protest,” the “act of feverishly throwing money at a cause you believe in because you just don’t know what the hell else to do.” While Fetters is being glib, there is little doubt that rage giving carries its own implicit value-judgement. Chief among them is the inclination to characterize rage as an irrational emotion. This can lead to dismissiveness and the pigeon-holing of rage giving as a flash in the pan.

However, while this interpretation of rage giving is very much a product of this time and place, it also draws on a more fundamental—and quintessentially American—impulse: that voluntary support of nonprofit organizations is critical to society’s functioning. This is true whether we are talking about public-society benefits with a clear line to a particular social problem, a land-grant university turning to private support in the face of less state funding, or an arts organization’s contribution to the human condition.

More specifically, rage giving is fueled by a desire to make a difference in society, whether it’s an act of “armchair resistance” specific to this context or not. The desire to be impactful, as broad a term as that is, is not new; in a certain sense, it has always been the rationale behind philanthropy. Yet, in an era of cost-benefit analysis and nuanced social criticism, impact has taken on a more discerning meaning. In researching funding opportunities that capture mega-gifts, we found that disruptive ideas like genomic medicine, cancer research, and entrepreneurship were favored by major donors. The inference is that the agency their donation might have in shaping society played into those particular donors’ motivations.

Though discussions around impact are more oriented towards large gifts, the same desire to make a difference applies to smaller donors as well. Connecting your organization’s story to social impact, broad or narrow, can capitalize on a climate of social criticism without an explicit nod to partisanship.

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While the $20 million raised by volunteers for RAICES in less than a week—using Facebook’s native fundraising app no less—is probably out of reach, your organization can still benefit from staying attuned to the political climate and news cycle, as well as focusing on good practices in donor communications and stewardship.

To learn more, watch GG+A’s webinar on the Giving USA Report here.

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About the author

Grant Forssberg

Knowledge Resources Manager

Grant Forssberg, Knowledge Resources Manager, joined GG+A in January 2015 to organize, maintain and distribute the firm’s archive of information resources and intellectual property. He also provides research support to internal and external clients. Trained as an academic historian, Grant has an eclectic background in education, non-profits, and policy. Most…