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Do Political Campaign Donations Cannibalize Charity Gifts?

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The current presidential election cycle promises to bring in record contributions from political donors. The question is, how does competition from political fundraising affect donor giving to nonprofit organizations?

New research from Blackbaud, which examined the influence of political giving on charitable giving in the 2012 election year, finds that donors who made federal campaign gifts that year contributed 0.9% more to charities than they did in 2011.

At the same time, donors who did not give to political campaigns reduced their charitable contributions by 2.1%.

These findings held across all household incomes, ages, and men and women, the research showed.

Blackbaud based its research on 400,000 households that appeared in both the Federal Election Commission database of political donors and in its own nonprofit cooperative database. These households gave political gifts in 2012, and made at least one charitable donation in 2011 and 2012.

Non-political donors were those in the nonprofit database who made at least one charitable contribution in 2011 and 2012, but did not donate to a presidential or congressional campaign.

“Our findings suggest that the 400,000 political donors studied are extraordinary charitable givers,” the report said. “They gave $800 million in political gifts in 2012, while also giving more to charity in the same year.”

The study looked at how political giving affected charitable donations in six nonprofits sub-sectors studied. The research found the following percent changed in charitable giving from 2011 to 2012 by political donors and non-political donors:

  • Arts and culture: 5.3% vs. -2.2%
  • Environment and animal: 0.7% vs. -2%
  • Health care: -1.1% vs. -2.1%
  • International  affairs: 0.9% vs. -2.1%
  • Public and society benefit: 6.8% vs. 1%
  • Human services: 14.5% vs. 2.6%

The report said that, as expected, charities involved in missions and programs touched by major campaign issues — environment and public and society benefit — benefited from political discourse on those themes, and organizations focused on public policy advocacy benefited most.

Researchers attributed the outsize increase in donor support for human services to superstorm Sandy, which prompted individuals to donate more than $200 million by the end of 2012. The storm may also have caused decreases in international giving by both groups of donors, it said.

Fundraising Recommendations

The report drew several insights from the research that it said may be useful to nonprofits during the 2016 election year.

Nonprofits should weigh risk when strategic decisions about new donor acquisition and reinstating lapsed donors, assessing the aggressiveness of campaign fundraising and the status of consumer confidence heading into the autumn.

The connection between passion for a cause and contributions is clear, the report said. Nonprofits should use 2016 as an opportunity to align their advocacy and fundraising teams internally toward shared goals.

President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign playbook, which galvanized supporters through opt-ins, segmentation and personalized outreach, offers some valuable lessons for fundraisers. Nonprofits should look for opportunities to rally advocates around their cause.

They should also pay attention to major donors whose engagement in politics is known, especially if the nonprofit’s mission and program have relevance to the elections. If donor’s political giving activity is unknown, the nonprofit should make it part of its research.

For general fundraising, the report said nonprofits should continue to emphasize retention by cultivating existing donors and reinstating recently lapsed ones.


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