Romper Room time for fundraisers

“Romper bomper stomper boo! Tell me, tell me, tell me do. Magic mirror tell me today …”

Ah, now that brings back childhood memories of watching “Romper Room“. Sadly, I was always afraid of that last bit to end the show where the host recites those magic words and allegedly turn our TV set into a two-way window where she could see things that in reality really weren’t there. It was kind of like a magic crystal ball.

After reading an article on PNNOnline this morning about the future of the charitable tax deduction as part of the debt ceiling and budget debates, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is “Romper Room” time for the philanthropy community. Why? Quite simply, I believe everyone is pulling out their magic mirrors, trying to predict what “might happen” and how that “might impact” charitable giving, and weighing in with an opinion wrapped in rhetoric. Here is just one example from the PNNOnline article:

“The White House and Congress must understand that limiting the value of itemized deductions for charitable contributions will dramatically affect the charitable sector and those it serves,” said Andrew Watt, FInstF, president and CEO of AFP.

OMG … it is Godzilla! Run!

Additionally, AFP asked its members what they thought using a “web poll,” and more than half said they thought a reduction in the charitable deduction would result in a 10-percent drop in charitable contributions to their charities.

Seriously?!? There is no way that anyone including the President & CEO of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) can make statements with that much certainty. I need everyone to take a deep breath and consider the following:

  • It is a web poll … how scientific can that be?
  • Do we need to talk about the shortcomings of survey data? If so, there are two great reading assignments for you — assignment #1 and assignment #2. A piece of advice … this is bedtime reading. Zzzzzzzzz! Please trust me when I say the results are garbage.
  • Very few people make charitable contributions because of the tax code. They give because it makes them happy, they want to change the world around them, the right person just so happened to ask them, and the list goes on and on. Sandra Sims at Step By Step Fundraising did a nice job make this point in her blog on what motivates people to give.
  • While it is impossible to say with certainty, a large number of Americans don’t itemize their taxes and receive no tax benefit for making their charitable contributions.
  • There have been many “scientific studies” done on the effects of tax policy on philanthropic giving. Needless to say, their conclusions are all wishy-washy because there are too many factors to consider including: the state of the economy, income, perceived personal wealth, state of mind (e.g. consumer confidence), quality and degree of training of the non-profit volunteer solicitor, etc etc etc. Click here to read an academic paper by Lise Vesterlund based on the scientific method and psychology. Go ahead and try to read all 70-pages objectively. If you were being honest and fair, you’d agree that the conclusions should best be summed up by saying “I dunno!”

The fact of the matter is that the tax rates bounced all over the place in the 1980s and there didn’t seem to be much of a noticeable change in charitable giving.

So, if you are one of my fellow resource development colleagues running around like Chicken Little, I beg you to please sit down, take a pill and put down your Romper Room magic mirrors. There is no need for hysteria, and let’s stop trying to use science to bolster opinions because the reality is that human behavior is too difficult to explain by using “web polls” and rhetoric.

Tomorrow, I will continue this discussion and even try to play devil’s advocate. In the meantime, please use the comment box and weigh-in with you thoughts on this subject. Am I being too dismissive? Have you seen more convincing evidence? Do you have a strong opinion on how your non-profit might be affected? If so, what do you base it on?

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847