In just a couple of weeks the leaves will start to turn, lurid summer heat will fade to the chill of autumn nights, and fundraising season will be upon us once again.
For those who work in the nonprofit sector, these words will undoubtedly rustle familiar feelings of excitement, anxiety, and earnest determination. For those who don’t, or simply don’t know what fundraising season is, it’s that period of time each year from Labor Day to New Year’s Eve which happens to account for 34 percent of all annual charitable giving.
Naturally, this short window of opportunity can place loads of stress on charities and other NGOs to align their proverbial ducks in a row. It means establishing campaigns, engaging with donor bases, writing appeals, and nurturing new strategies. But why exactly do these last three months of the year signal such an acute spike in donations?
Fall does mark an ideal time to host peer-to-peer fundraising events that include seasonable runs, walks, and marathons. Many donor renewal and membership campaigns also occur during this key period. But it’s the last two months of the year where the magic really happens. The end of November bears the arrival of #GivingTuesday, a day that has repeatedly broken the Guinness World Record for the most amount of money donated to charity globally in 24 hours. And of all the donations awarded each fundraising season, the month of December accounts for nearly 20 percent of them.
It’s hard not to discern a unifying thread in all of this. The most charitable day of the year happens to fall on the heels of the two most commercially self-indulgent — Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The beginning of September ushers in the start of the holiday season, and the month that sees some of the most donations every year also includes many of the most celebrated holidays.
While retailers are in the midst of their busiest season, so too are nonprofits. Which is, frankly, a little strange on the surface given the worlds that separate these two industries, but upon closer inspection makes perfect sense.
The “holiday spirit” is a real and pervasive force, even if we created it. We’re told that the true meaning of the holidays demands us to turn inward and nurture our best selves, to stoke our altruism and generosity. Joy comes from giving, not receiving.
All of this rings true; it’s not wrong to say that most people ultimately want to see the betterment of those who are less fortunate, especially during a time when families come together and give to one another out of love.
It does beg the question though why this inspiring flux in empathetic outreach needs to be limited to such a small and insular bubble every year, when the universal truths that fuel donation remain a part of us all year long…
Back in December of 2015, NPR’s Hidden Brain spoke with John List at the University of Chicago about an experiment he conducted that sought to better understand why people give to charitable causes. He discovered that social pressure actually accounted for much of this generosity, and perhaps more so than many would like to profess.
“Anytime you ask someone why they give to a charitable cause, the typical response is, ‘I gave because I really want to help another person,’” List told NPR. “But when you dig down deeper, that’s not the true motive for why they gave.”
The social pressure in this study had to do with door-to-door canvassers, but it’s important to remember that online donations, and specifically those spurred by social media, are transforming both fundraising season and nonprofits at large, year-round. An online survey conducted last year by the American Red Cross found that 71 percent of social users had contributed to a charity in the preceding 12 months, and 60 percent had done so through online donations. The majority of these participants also indicated that they would take some kind of action if a friend posted a story on social media about giving to a charity.
Ultimately, it would be wrong to say that this spirit of giving is rooted in nothing more than vanity. Our online identities express who we are and what we care most about — they also serve as digital vessels to connect with causes shared by friends and colleagues. Social networks and charitable giving are intersecting and building on one another through spurts of friend-inspired activity that function like a giant domino effect, one that’s capable of changing our philanthropic roadmap in the years to come. It already is.
We don’t need to be asked to give, but in many ways we’ve silently welcomed the need for a catalyst to be our best selves. The holiday spirit elevates charity to new heights that make fundraising season possible, but the collective belief that accumulates and snowballs during this age-old period of tradition, of gingerbread houses and carols and gift giving and new resolutions isn’t merely contained by a brief turn at the end of each year.
So as we enter fundraising season, let’s ride this great, compassionate wave on into the new year. Let’s remember purpose-filled living and contributions shared don’t have an expiration date.