Why Charity Shouldn’t Be Private

American giving is getting more and more public, and that’s a good thing.

Historically, Americans have treated donating to nonprofits as a pretty private thing. In the mid-19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that even being wealthy in America was something you were supposed to be subtle about—dressing like everybody else, doing your charity work behind the scenes. Even after the rise of mega-wealth in the late 19th century, when suddenly there were philanthropists able to shower multi-million dollar gifts on cities, those high-profile gifts are the exception rather than the rule. Unless you’re building Carnegie Hall or something, charitable financial support is supposed to be something you do under the radar. And if you did mention your support of an organization, you never, ever mentioned the amount.

That’s changing, and it needs to change more.

Granted, some of this historical approach has its roots in Christianity, which warns against making a big to-do over how awesome you are for giving. And few Americans, I think, want to make out that they’re something special for engaging in charitable activity. Both of these attitudes are good.

But a lot of our charitable efforts are geared towards solving problems created by economies of scale–situations that can’t be solved by one person’s donation, and in fact need to be solved by communities rising up together and taking ownership of a problem. People are social. They do what their friends do, they value what their friends value, they get their cues about what’s important from social messaging both subliminal and obvious. And the difference between a feel-good gift and true strides in solving a problem is often the difference between whether or not enough people are invested in solving the problem.

As a result, I think organizations need to add fundraising (and non-financial support) tactics that create opportunities for visibility, for people who want it. In fact, in this area, the demand from potential donors is way ahead of the supply from nonprofits. Their future donors are asking for this.

We now have crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, where you’re supposed to actively promote the fact that you just gave, in order to help the campaign reach its goal (otherwise they get nothing). But even short of obvious examples like this, the way that people interact with nonprofits on social media demands that those nonprofits find ways to “make the private public,” as marketing professionals like to say. Done tastefully, it’s good for the donor AND for the organization. (Another benefit: increased organic transparency of this sort also reduces the demand for forced transparency in the form of potentially invasive or distracting regulations.)

Skeptical? Think about these stats:

  • 67% of people who liked a nonprofit Facebook page said they did so because they wanted other people to know they supported the organization.
  • 47% of American learn about a nonprofit from social media (i.e., they hear about it from somebody else interacting with it publicly).
  • Nonprofits that involve Twitter in their fundraising (allowing their supporters to, for example, retweet donation requests) make 10 times as much in online donations as nonprofits that don’t
  • If a friend posts a charitable donation on a social media site, people tend to:
    • Take time to find out more about the charity (68%)
    • Ask the friend about the charity (58%)
    • Have more respect for the friend (i.e. the donor benefits socially, 51%)
    • Donate to the nonprofit themselves (39%)
    • Share the donation opportunity with even more people (34%)

This idea isn’t a social media idea. It’s a human idea. Marketers have taught this for ages. This is where Livestrong bracelets came from; it was a way of turning private support into a craze of support. And for all the pros and cons of social media, one thing it is fantastic at (when used properly) is bringing huge networks of people together behind causes.

Charity is never primarily about making you feel better; it’s about helping somebody else. People who are serious about doing that should talk to their favorite nonprofit about how they can create social strategies.

This post is a variation on a piece that was originally published in The Social Fundraiser.

Brian Brown
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.

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