Sara Stern
EVP, Philanthropic Marketing

Philanthropy as Identity

Learning from the public display of disaffection

Beginning immediately in the days after the November 2016 election, large environmental and social justice charities and advocacy groups saw unexpected surges in donations. Those surges continue. This suggests that people make extraordinary contributions as a demonstration of agency and identity in response to news or events that run counter to their beliefs.

When donors feel their deepest held values are under attack, they pour money into the organizations that have long demonstrated their commitment and effectiveness—and even a fierceness—to defending donors’ core values. Just one week after the presidential election, The Atlantic reported an “unprecedented” surge in giving to charities and social causes poised to counter some of the hallmark platform promises of the new Trump administration. The donors’ reaction was based upon their assumption that these promises would attack the agenda that shaped their own vision of the nation and the world. Since then, the Nonprofit Quarterly has been tracking and reporting on this phenomenon of “rage donating,” noting that donors have been moving into a more activist role through their giving.

Some data points:

  • Planned Parenthood received nearly 80,000 donations in just three days after the election. Since then they have received more than 300,000 donations. Half of these donors are millennials and 70% are first-time donors.
  • The ACLU had a massive spike in donations after election results came in, so much so that the giving page crashed the next day (November 9th). In the five days post-election, they raised more than $7 million, an increase of 7,000%. And this wasn’t just a brief hike—since December, the ACLU has raised $23 million.
  • After President Trump’s announcement on the Paris Climate Accords earlier this month, tech executives (Matt Rogers & Tony Fadell of Nest and Meg Whitman of HP) led a match drive for the Environmental Defense Fund, matching $5 for every $1 contributed through June 5th. The campaign was so successful that they extended the deadline (though the match is now down to $2 to $1). The campaign has raised almost $1.8 million of a $2 million goal, which is up from the original goal of $1.25 million. The campaign also drove substantial traffic on Twitter with #EDFMatch and was covered in Fortune.

And in early June, philanthropist, patron, and art collector Agnes Gund established an Art for Justice Fund with a $100 million donation from the sale of her treasured 1962 Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece.  Her approach challenges other art collectors to use their art for social justice (as reported in the New York Times). She leveraged her position and her philanthropy to create a public platform for a cause she cares deeply about, and asked others to do the same.

Natural disasters and humanitarian crises have always galvanized giving. However, what’s remarkable about all of this new “actigiving” is not just the money raised, nor the giving itself, but the passionate display and declaration of values through the act of giving. It’s an emphatic example of what we at Lipman Hearne believe: that giving and personal identity are inextricably linked—in good times and in bad—and philanthropic marketing must convert a funding initiative to a cause and a brand that donors will care about, carry, and shout out loud.