I’ll never understand the art of fundraising or the skill of some individuals to successfully solicit donations. Take the many non-profit organizations that give you something for a specified donation amount—like a public T.V. station giving you a gift of a Michael Bernard Beckwith motivational DVD for your money pledge.
Many years ago I donated a few dollars to a small, Catholic school in New Mexico. It was doing God’s work by helping provide an education and moral training to young Native American members of the church. I was happy to mail a check for a few dollars to show my support. I hoped my few bucks would at least cover the costs of the mailing appeal (targeted at me) with a little extra for the kids.
In the coming months I received more mailings from the school: Pens, notepads, calendars, lapel pins, plastic glow-in-the-dark crosses, prayer cards, personalized return address labels, and feathered medicine wheel wind chimes. Aside from the fact that all of this stuff was manufactured in China, not by the school children, I wondered why it was necessary to send me “free gifts” in the first place? Included with these free gifts were words of thanks and appeals to send more money.
Of course I have no problem sending the school a few dollars a few times a year to help with its good works, but now I have a top desk drawer at home stuffed with “free gifts.” I have been handing out Pueblo notepads and wind chimes to friends while I place the prayer cards and the plastic glow-in-the-dark crosses in a small basket at the entrance of a local church.
The local church, recognizing the same bounty of “free gifts” received by its parishioners donating to various church charities—yes, even my favorite Indian school—has a basket for churchgoers in which to clean out their desk drawers. In the little basket you’ll find unblessed rosaries, holy cards with pictures of saints, mini prayer books and yes, even a few of those plastic glow-in-the-dark crosses.
Why is it that fundraisers feel folks won’t donate money if they don’t receive something in return? Shouldn’t charity be a one-way street?
Maybe charity does involve a little selfishness now and then—like the fact that giving something to those in need can make the giver feel good, even useful. But if giving is predicated only by what the giver receives, then I think we’ve missed the point.
I don’t fault the Indian school for mailing me trinket wind chimes and ultra-thin notepads, but I do wonder why its fundraisers spend the school’s hard-to-find money for such manipulative trinkets?
I know somewhere scientific data exists that shows that people are more likely to donate money to a non-profit organization or cause if they get something in return. But I’d like to believe that, perhaps naively, this just isn’t so—that people like me actually donate money or volunteer time for the simple joy of giving and sharing personal bounty with others. Even the idea that some donations to charities are tax deductible appears to turn the entire process into something like a tawdry business transaction. Perhaps this kind of reciprocity was always the foundation of charitable giving?
Psychologists Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, in their book titled “The Age of Propaganda: Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion,” write that “the norm of reciprocity is successful as a persuasion device because it directs our thoughts and carries its own motivation to act on those thoughts. We are directed to think ‘How can I repay my obligation?’ as opposed to ‘Is this a good deal?’ Our primary motivation is to avoid the uneasy feeling that comes from transgressing the norm.”
So my obligation is to repay the receipt of notepads and glow-in-the-dark crosses?
Admitting that Pratkanis and Aronson are likely correct in their assessment of the underlying motivations of reciprocity, it still doesn’t scratch the surface of why I personally feel good about sending a small Indian school in New Mexico a few dollars more.