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New Survey Looks at Giving from a Different Angle

November 2007

A new survey by American Express and conducted in September 2007 has taken a different approach to examining the philanthropic habits of American donors. By looking at individual gifts on a national scale rather than annual donation amounts, the American Express Charitable Gift Survey—conducted in partnership with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University—offers an intriguing look at how much is given in a single transaction, the differences between on-line and off-line gifts, and the motivations that lead donors to choose one method of giving over the other.

Little Things Mean a Lot

Although the survey did not find any significant differences between the average amounts of donations made on-line and off-line, it did reveal that a large number of these charitable transactions involved small amounts of money. Of the more than 900 gifts reported in the survey, more than two-thirds represented donations of $100 or less. In fact, the study found that the median charitable donation is $50.

In 2001, a report by Independent Sector showed the average annual charitable contribution per American household to be $1,620. When examined against the backdrop of this figure, the American Express Charitable Gift Survey presents a view of the way in which charities receive their money that might be at odds with the expectations of the average person, illustrating how every dollar counts and even the smallest donation makes a difference. These figures also serve to emphasize the importance of donor stewardship for nonprofit organizations, as individuals who tend to break up their annual giving into a large number of smaller transactions must be kept continually engaged and informed.

"Nonprofit organizations rely on many low dollar donations to fund their vital work," said Dr. Patrick Rooney, director of research for the Center on Philanthropy. "Even though high-profile, multi-million dollar donations receive the most recognition, the American Express Charitable Gift Survey demonstrates that most Americans are giving small donations—and that they can add up for charities."

If You Build It, Will They Come? Only if They Know It's There

On-line donations have been a hot topic in the nonprofit sector for some time now. Many charitable organizations have incorporated an on-line giving function into their Internet strategies in order to offer their supporters an alternative means of making a contribution. But are these "donate now" buttons being clicked? Nearly two-thirds of the individuals participating in the American Express Charitable Gift Survey reported that they had made a charitable donation in the past year. Of these donors, 1 in 10 made their contribution on-line, representing about 6 percent of the total survey participants.

So of those who are giving on-line, what are the motivations that drive them to do so? Part of the answer can be found in the fast pace of today's society: 64 percent of on-line donors indicated it was because of the speed or convenience of the process. Not surprisingly, one of the most common reasons offered for not giving on-line was that the individual didn't own a computer. Despite technology's seeming ubiquity, only 54 percent of American households reported owning a computer with Internet access in 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest Current Population Report. The most common reason—after not having a computer—chosen by 28 percent of donors who only gave off-line, was that they either could not find an on-line giving site, they didn't know they could make a gift on-line, or they simply did not think of giving on-line.

Although it is apparent that the "click to give" message isn't reaching everyone, there are some potential supporters who have already been moved to action on-line. The second most common reason for making a donation on the Internet was a direct appeal from the organization itself, such as an e-mail that included a link or a Web site that prominently featured an on-line giving function.

"The American Express Charitable Gift Survey serves as a call-to-action for charities to boost their on-line initiatives," said Bradlee Benn, vice president, Business Development, American Express Merchant Services. "This survey indicates there is an untapped pool of donors who are influenced by a charity's on-line presence, and charities could benefit by proactively reaching out to them."

About the Survey

American Express sponsored the research for the Charitable Gift Survey, while the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University completed the analysis and the report. The project was managed by the Hart Philanthropic Services Group/tedhart.com and the Innovative Research Group fielded the telephone survey. Download the American Express Charitable Gift Survey >

Patrick Ferraro, November 2007
© 2007, American Express

Patrick Ferraro is a freelance writer in Seattle, a former editor of the Newsletter, and the guest editor of the 2007 giving season issue.