Donor Incentives Versus Socially Conscious Products

It’s virtually impossible to have any discussion about charitable organizations without talking about fundraising. It’s the lifeblood of any non-profit and thus carries a tremendous amount of importance. Yet, as broad as the world of non-profit organizations is today, the kind of fundraising we see is relatively simple. One of the most common forms of fundraising that happens is the exchange of non-profit branded merchandise for donations. If you’ve had any interaction with a charity before, you’ve likely seen this in one of two forms. 1) You’ve been offered a product in exchange for donating a certain amount of money (ex. Get a free t shirt or gym back when you donate $50 or more). 2) The proceeds of a purchase benefit the cause (ex. Buy this $20 t-shirt and all of the proceeds go to x charity). Hopefully that isn’t earth-shattering information.

To most people, these two methods accomplish essentially the same thing and there’s very little to distinguish the two. After all, the dollar amounts they each raise are virtually the same. However, I would argue that one is extremely dangerous if not damaging to the social justice/non-profit movement as a whole and the other is a perfectly valid way of getting people involved with your cause.

I personally have leveraged the socially conscious product model for fundraising for Skate Across Indiana. I sold t-shirts for the event with all of the proceeds going directly to HIV/AIDS orphan programs. It was a great way for people to support the event both financially and at a grass roots level. With that being said, I absolutely despise the other technique, that being donor incentives. “Donate Now and Receive A Free Gift” campaigns are common, but I believe are doing a significant amount of damage. Here’s why: Every time an organization offers a free product in exchange for a donation, it reinforces a notion that you must receive something in order for you to give something. That runs contrary to everything that charitable giving should be about and I would go as far to say it isn’t really charity at all. I shouldn’t have to give you a free jacket to get you to donate $100 to cancer research. I shouldn’t have to give you a silicon bracelet to get you to give $10 to feed children who are starving. Those are things you should do regardless of whether you get something or not. Unfortunately, consumerism has hijacked some parts of the charitable fundraising ecosystem.

Here’s another example. Lately I’ve seen a lot of charity runs (5Ks, half marathons, etc) offer a Sleep-in option to their registration process. You can pay the entry fee, skip the run entirely, and get a event t-shirt regardless of whether you actually ran or not. I would argue that this new-ish phenomenon was birthed out of a consumerist trend in charitable giving: “What-Will-You-Give-Me-For-Donating.” At face value, this might not seem like a problem to the average person. In fact, some may even call an idea like that innovative, but to see how ridiculous it is, let’s apply it to another example.

Let’s say you see a freezing child at a bus stop who clearly needs a coat (see this blog post). Are you going to say to this kid, “What do I get if I give you my coat?” or “What color wristband will you give me if I donate a warm bowl of soup to you?” I would sure hope not! Yet, that’s pretty much the mentality that’s being formed by donor incentives.

So what does all this mean for you? Obviously you don’t have much influence over what the direct for a non-profit organization decided to do with their fundraising, but you can still refrain from embracing donor incentives. Instead of receiving the free item, say you’d rather the money you are donating to go to the cause and that you’d like to see some evidence if possible (that could be even more revealing!). If you find this at all challenging, perhaps you ought to reconsider what you are giving to as well as your motivation for giving. If it’s for anything other than making the world better, it’s probably not a pure reason. With all that being said, don’t be discouraged from donating to charity, and don’t let the presence of a donor incentive sway you against giving. All I’m saying is don’t let prizes become the reason for helping others in need.

Do you have an example or a story of how you’ve been offered an incentive to donate to a non-profit. If so, please share your story in the comments below.

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