How Do Political Campaigns Affect Charitable Giving? Maybe Not the Way You Think

With the 2016 presidential election campaign in full swing, many Americans are now more focused on the issues that mean the most to them. Naturally, election years bring surges in donations for political candidates and causes. So if you’re a non-political organization, how should that affect your fundraising this year?

Charitable nonprofits have long viewed campaign years as challenging times for non-political fundraising. Many choose to invest less in their fundraising during a federal election year based on the assumption that donors who support political campaigns tend to turn away from non-political charitable causes during that time. But a recent study from Blackbaud reveals just the opposite. 

The philanthropy software and services firm studied the effects of political campaigns on charitable giving during the 2012 election year. Its recent report, “Giving in an Election Year: How Political Giving Impacts Nonprofit Support,” tells us that political donors actually increased their giving to charities that year.  And that’s not all.

Comparing Donation Data

In the study, researchers examined differences in charitable giving from 2011 to 2012. They looked for common donors between two national databases – one containing political donation records, and one housing charitable donation records. The 400,000 households that gave political gifts in 2012 and at least one charitable gift in 2011 and 2012 were labeled “political donors”. “Non-political donors” were those who gave at least one charitable gift in 2011 and 2012 but did not give to a political campaign. So what did this data uncover?

Who, When, and How Much?

According to the report, and contrary to conventional belief, political donors gave 0.9 percent more to charities in 2012 than they gave in 2011, with an especially notable increase of 10.8 percent among 25- to 34-year-olds. Interestingly, non-political donors gave 2.1 percentless to charities in the election year than they gave in 2011. Overall, political donors gave more to charity in 2012 than non-political donors, regardless of age range, household income, or gender. What does this tell us?

Takeaway and Recommendations

These results suggest that people who value engagement in one area of civic life are likely to value engagement in other areas. Giving to a campaign may indicate a stronger overall tendency to invest in public causes. Despite what many assume, nonprofit programs touched by key campaign issues could potentially benefit from the extra attention those issues receive during campaign season. And, the increase in charitable gifts from political donors ages 25-34 suggests that campaign years may actually be ideal target times for nonprofits to attract young donors.

Based on these discoveries, it might be time for some nonprofits to reconsider their approach to election-year fundraising. Blackbaud offers these recommendations:

  • Decisions about new donor acquisition and reinstating intermediate- and long-term lapsed donors should be based on an assessment of the aggressiveness of 2016 campaign fundraising and the status of consumer confidence heading into the fall (as they impact overall competition for donations and likelihood of giving). While alignment of campaign issues, organization mission, and programs can be a good bet, risk should be weighed when making acquisition and reinstatement strategy decisions.
  • Pay attention to the connection between passion for a cause and contributions. Use 2016 as an opportunity to align your advocacy and fundraising teams internally towards shared goals.
  • Learn from political fundraising tactics. Political campaigns are fertile ground for fundraising innovation and are constantly developing best practices for rallying support. Look for opportunities to apply those methods to your own campaigns.
  • Research the political engagement of your donors. Pay special attention to those who are engaged – especially if your mission is relevant to the elections.
  • For general fundraising, continue to emphasize retention by cultivating existing donors and reinstating donors who have recently lapsed.

At Merkle Response, we advocate for the use of data-driven intelligence that helps our nonprofit clients succeed in their fundraising and serving their missions. We share this report as part of our aim to help clients adopt best practices based on the latest industry research and insights.

Download the full report.