In this season of giving — and shopping and spending — year-end appeals stuff my mailbox and e-mail in-box from nonprofit organizations and political causes that are making a difference, that deserve my donation.
Their creative approaches both amuse and annoy me:
- Governor Tim Walz’s dog, Scout, sent an appeal to “keep Minnesota blue,” which I took to be a program for clean water, but it turned out to be a fundraising campaign for the governor’s One Minnesota initiative. Since Scout is a rescue pup — a cause dear to my heart — I hung onto the e-mail for consideration. (Plus an earlier message from Walz’s finance director shamed me into seeing that I had contributed nothing in 2019.)
- The one I will ignore, though the subject line grabbed me, is Jane Fonda’s appeal to support the re-election campaign of Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. Given that I had to Google who he was, I decided to keep my dollars local.
- Prairie’s Edge Humane Society in Northfield, Minnesota, where I adopted my sons’ childhood dogs, Skip and Lucy, prepared a letter to Santa from a different animal every day for its “12 Days of Giving.” Because I appreciate the opportunity to donate supplies as well as money and am touched by the animals’ stories (including an obese dog named Root Beer abandoned last summer at age 7 and now nursed back to better health), I plan to give something.
This time of year, “we work harder to share stories that resonate with the majority of our donors,” says Mary McKeown, president and CEO of Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, whose food mobile helps address food insecurity at the University of St. Thomas, where I work, and Hamline University, where my sons earned their degrees.
Days after I already had mailed a check, Keystone’s year-end appeal arrived at my home. The story that McKeown promised featured Jean, who “has worked hard and supported herself independently her whole life,” but who had to quit her job because of emphysema. (It could happen to any of us, right? Who isn’t living paycheck to paycheck?)
I drive Meals on Wheels and serve on a strategic planning task force for Keystone. That means more to me than Jean’s story because I see firsthand the good that this organization does.
“We’ve never bought donor lists,” says McKeown, who also happens to be my neighbor, increasing Keystone’s hyper-local appeal. “We’ve just been thoughtful about how to establish a year-round relationship with our supporters. So, when they’re making that choice, out of all the envelopes in front of them, they think: I know Keystone, and I know what they’re doing with my money.”
Who gives, and why?
Minnesotans are the most generous people in the nation, donating more money and time than other Americans, according to a poll released in December by WalletHub, a personal finance website. And the “average donor,” McKeown says, is a 68-year-old woman less interested in “experiences,” as younger adults tend to be, than in giving money back to her community.
As a female, 62-year-old, lifelong Minnesotan, I am thus a prime target. So, which of the many worthy appeals — from Move Minnesota, the Elizabeth Warren campaign, the Animal Humane Society, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation — will grab my attention, and my wallet?
This year I relied more on data than emotion, reviewing my checkbook for 2019 and listing every cause to which I had donated money throughout the year, from $10 a month recurring payments to one-time gifts of over $100. The patterns were eye-opening:
- Female political candidates, including Warren, garnered the highest number of donations, though not always the greatest amounts.
- “Green” is a value and a practice in my household, so in addition to regular, small donations to the Nature Conservancy and the Arbor Day Foundation — which inexplicably sent us trees to plant in early December — my husband and I gave our largest one-time gift to Environment Minnesota.
- Public radio, public television and local food co-ops such as Seward — whose hiring practices demonstrate its commitment to diversity — get my membership dollars, but I am using their services, so those monthly contributions don’t really count as donations.
- The women’s health organization to which I consistently give my time received no money until the “matching gift” plea showed up on Facebook and in my e-mail after Christmas.
Turns out, Minnesotans “love a deal,” McKeown says. A marketing director from Best Buy, one of the Twin Cities’ 17 Fortune 500 companies, serves on Keystone’s board. Originally from Atlanta, he tells McKeown that Best Buy markets differently in Minnesota to appeal to our bargain-hunting ways.
That’s why matching-gift appeals are so popular at the end of the year, she explains, even though it’s a heavy-spending season: “Someone who would give $100 may give $150 because they’re getting a match.”
Seventy-four percent of Minnesotans describe themselves as “somewhat” or “very religious.” That matters, too, especially in a state that is still primarily Christian. At a national conference in October, McKeown learned that year-end philanthropic appeals relate less to tax benefits — which are shrinking anyway — than to the tradition of being generous at Christmastime to your church.
The last three days of December are “the three busiest days for donations each year,” according to GiveMN, which promotes philanthropy in Minnesota. National data show that 12 percent of all gifts are made between December 29 and 31.
The handwritten list of where I donated money this year is less a budgetary tool than it is a list of values: from feminism and political engagement to environmental advocacy, animal rights, and supporting local shops and farmers. I am privileged, and it is a privilege to give.