Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Two And A Half Cheers!

Giving USA Foundation today reported that American individuals, estates, corporations, and foundations donated an estimated $335.17 billion to charitable causes in 2013, an increase of 4.4 percent (3.0 percent, adjusted for inflation) from the revised estimate of $320.97 billion for 2012.

Each year Giving USA Foundation (www.givinginstitute.org) publishes a detailed compendium on the previous year's charitable giving. The research and development is carried  out by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, a long enduring relationship between the two groups. The Giving Institute, an alliance of 36 fundraising consulting firms, owns the name but  on its own GI lacks the staff and resources to compile and report the data.

Though charitable giving is still not at the pre-recession level achieved in 2007 ($349.50 billion, inflation-adjusted) positive news is great. But we all live and work in a world of immediacy. For years I have been stewing about the six-month reporting lag. To me this a major downside of a very expensive undertaking. Frankly,the earth does not move on this news. For national media it's a one or two day story. For me there is little of actionable value for a given client.

What matters most is the sources of giving (below) and those proportionate data have been constant since 1956 when we started tracking it. In fact the money given hovers around plus or  minus 2% of GDP. The needle hasn't  moved. Also the research does not report cause related marketing, a huge amorphous chunk of corporate "giving." Nor does it examine the remittance economy which to me is as much philanthropically motivated as foundation grants; and it under-reports estate giving because most estates are below the taxable line for which returns must be filed federally. (The states are another matter. Don't ask). 

The first few pages of the Giving USA report attract the most media attention and are of the most value. But the recondite details are of very limited interest or practical use. So for whom does the data matter? The Giving Institute is spending some three hundred thousand dollars a year for the benefit of a relatively small cohort of academics and maybe the Gnomes of Zurich. The R&D that goes into Giving USA does yield those summary pages. But how much longer can GI sustain this magnitude of expense? This question has been knocking around for years and the desultory discussions the members have had go nowhere. At bottom, we are a very small trade association in search of high purpose

The Institute doesn't or can't bring in new members fast enough at any dues level to offset the huge cost.In  my over-a-glass chats with top notch outside firms who are not members but are every bit as good as we self anointed "thought leaders" are the response is always the same:it's just not worth the money. No value add. Nor is the Foundation's philanthropy effort, though vigorous, sufficiently robust because try as we might we don't attract much in the way of outside donors.

Advertising revenue has not eventuated because we don't have enough base to justify the cost to a serious  buyer. Fidelity (which  just once gave us  money), Vanguard and Schwab would have been and may still be the best prospects - but we have to show real value given that they have their own marketing  platforms.

Indiana University is and has been a great partner for whom I have the highest regard. But frankly they are swimming  in money; do they really need ours? Why couldn't we license the Giving USA name to them for a big royalty payment? 

Our company continues its membership because we recognize an obligation to give back - and we truly enjoy the company of other firms' principals. We have never rationalized  our participation economically. If we did we'd be gone.


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