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    March 20, 2009

    When "Not Me" Comes Home, how is giving affected?

    Something unprecedented is happening in the United States, at least unprecedented for my generation. According to news reports, Americans are saving more of their monthly earnings now than they have for decades.

    We are so spooked, it seems we have turned from a country of instantly gratified consumers to careful ants, building up stocks for the rainy day (that has apparently already come). So if people are saving more, does that mean they have more to give? Given the panicked state of most Americans about the economy, will they give even if they can?

    Many organizations are certainly feeling the pinch. Odds are if you are an organization that fundraises for anything other than things like feeding people, putting clothes on their backs, performing life-saving medical miracles, you are on your 9th million reforecast of your projected budget for the next few months, with your marketing and finance team secretly bidding on magic crystal balls on Ebay that may give some insight into when things will turn around.

    As a fairly frequent donor, I have been using myself as a giving weather-vane (very scientific, I know). And, based on my very large test group and extensive scientific methods, I have developed a theory that goes like this:

    Donors are likely to keep giving in difficult economic times as long as they are living in a "this is not happening to me" universe. As soon as their direct personal network is affected, donors are likely to retract giving.

    What do I base this on? I have written here before about my giving habits: Give once a month to an organization I care about, on a rotating basis. Even as news of collapsing stock markets, multbillion dollar companies disappearing over night, huge layoffs, was spinning all around me, I did not stop giving. Sure, I got nervous. Cutback on spending. But when my local radio station had its annual membership drive in February, I gave them $60. I was actually spurred to give by the thought that this year they needed my dollars more than ever since some of their prior donors may be even more needed!

    And then, last week happened. Two people in my immediate network lost their jobs. Now these are very bright people, great at what they do, and frankly, people I would hire in a minute. "If they can lose their jobs, no one is safe!" is what my mind was thinking.

    And then I got an email from another organization I give to here and there. They are in a dire crisis. They need my help. But, well, since no one is safe anymore, should I give them my dollars, or squirrel them away in my bank account? I have not given yet.

    I write this not to scare. But because this is what we are up against as a fundraising community this year. Even those steadfast donors we can always "count" may be faltering. Even those who are fine (like me), are worried that they won't be fine tomorrow. And so the case we must make, is that parting with those dollars is worth it. The last thing I would want to do is to regret giving away my money to an organization.

    While driving home yesterday, I heard something that has certainly inspired me to continue giving, even when I am uncertain. Peter Singer, the Australian animal rights philosopher, has come out with a new book called The Life You Can Save. Here is the example Mr. Singer gave the host: (paraphrasing):

    Say you are going to work in your nice suit and shoes and you see a kid drowning
    in a shallow pond. Go in and ruin your shoes. But you would push that thought
    right out of your mind and wade right in to save the child.

    Well, Mr. Singer's basic argument is, that just because you don't see the kid thrashing around in the pond, doesn't mean you couldn't save a life for the cost of a pair of shoes. And let's face it: even if you were out of a job, wondering how you are going to make your next house payment, on your way to an interview, you would still run in to save the child from drowning, ruined nice shoes and all.

    I don't think I'll be spending cash to buy Mr. Singer's book, but I will certainly spend time thinking about how we, as fundraisers, can re-create the "obvious" need for giving this story evokes. And I'll keep on giving.

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