Pounded with news of hurricanes, wildfires and mass shootings this year, many Minnesotans responded with their wallets. Now, as charities move into the critical holiday fundraising season, some worry that donors will be too tapped out to support local bread-and-butter causes.
“Those other disasters absolutely can cannibalize some of our donations,” said Brian Molohon, Union Gospel Mission’s vice president of development.
Giving for disaster relief also has waned with each successive event. The American Red Cross says it received $5.2 million from Minnesotans after Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas Gulf Coast in August, $1.2 million the following month when Hurricane Irma swamped Florida, $950,000 later that same month after Hurricane Maria plowed through Puerto Rico, and $300,000 in general disaster relief. That mirrors the national downward trend.
In years past, the Union Gospel Mission, which relies solely on private donations, saw slight declines in giving after disasters, Molohon said. This year’s giving appears on track, “but there are still some question marks,” he said.
Local Red Cross officials are concerned. “People get overwhelmed by the news after a while, especially in a season like we’ve had. … We hope they remember the bigger picture of those in need every day in Minnesota and make that donation to help,” spokeswoman Carrie Carlson-Guest said.”
Many charities get the bulk of their donations at the end of the year, and fatigue could play a role in the level of giving this year, said Steve Boland, managing partner for Next in Nonprofits, a fundraising consulting firm.
“People already feel stretched this year. I am concerned we will see a slip,” Boland said. He added that he worries people will tally their annual donations this month for tax purposes, realize they’ve already hit their mark and write fewer checks.
Molohon said donors usually don’t come right out and say why they’re giving less. But he said that it often seems to be the bigger donors — those giving $10,000 to $50,000 — who decide to split their donations between a favorite local charity and a headline-grabbing natural disaster.
“I know about those other big disasters and I feel for them and I want to support them, but the needs here locally have not changed,” he said. “In fact, they’ve increased. We have more food insecurity issues here locally than we’ve ever had before.”
So far, Twin Cities-based Second Harvest Heartland food bank is on track this year, said chief philanthropy officer Marsha Shotley in a written statement. But it’s braced. “Based on the fact that this has been an exceptionally difficult year with so many large, national disasters, we may see a slight decrease,” she said.
‘The pie can grow’
Still, some charities have been able to beat back the trend due to special circumstances or smart fundraising.
Donations to Metro Meals on Wheels have been flat over the past six weeks at a time of year when it usually sees about 5 percent growth, said Executive Director Patrick Rowan.
“It’s not so much financial. I think people are emotionally tapped out these days. There are a lot of things to be concerned about and there are a lot of great causes,” he said.
But during the first half of the year, before the series of hurricanes that devastated the United States, Metro Meals on Wheels exceeded donation goals in the wake of news stories about possible federal cuts. That phenomenon, called rage giving — donations to causes feared to be in peril after the presidential election — resulted in several charities seeing upticks.
“I think we will make our numbers for this year. There is no certainty about everything from health care to funding for social services,” Rowan said.
Catholic Charities is reporting a strong year, fueled in part by an anonymous donor offering a “generosity challenge” of $500,000 in matching funds. The Animal Humane Society is running ahead of forecasts, said Meghan Bethke, director of philanthropy, after a series of preplanned fundraisers in November helped it reach donors to the tune of $270,000.
Following a huge jump in donations right after the 2016 presidential election, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota has had a good fundraising year, said Executive Director John Gordon. “It’s going well. There is so much interest in the work of this organization,” he said.
Bethke said she has heard concerns in fundraising circles about flagging donations but said it was due to political storms rather than natural disasters. Donors are concerned, she said, with how tax law changes might affect their incomes.
“People are a little bit more cautious in making large commitments right now,” she said.
Minnesota’s Give to the Max Day and National Giving Tuesday both broke records this year with total donations of $20.6 million and $274 million, respectively. Jake Blumberg, director of Give to the Max parent GiveMN, said that if charities thank donors and make sure they understand where the money is going, giving fatigue isn’t a factor.
“The pie can grow. It’s not a scarcity of resources,” said Blumberg, who teaches fundraising at the University of St. Thomas and Hamline University. “The right strategy, the right story, the right reason to give will often make people give more than they planned.”
Salvation Army spokeswoman Julie Borgen said that natural disasters actually can make people more aware of those struggling close to home.
“We are not overly worried about giving fatigue,” she said. “Minnesotans are very generous. We always see them turn out to support local charitable organizations.”
Jeff Ide of Minnetonka, a construction worker who was in downtown Minneapolis last week, said he believes Minnesotans are never too tired to offer a helping hand. He said that he has donated to hurricane relief this year and that he’ll continue to support his favorite local causes.
“It’s the Christmas spirit,” Ide said. “You give a little more if needed.”