Obvious Success Doesn’t Always Garner More Donations


Many people believe people who donate to nonprofits are fixated on success that can be measured in amounts raised or people helped and donate accordingly. Thus, more successful charities get more donations and go on to be even more successful.

But the philosophy of giving is much more nuanced than that.

The success of arts and culture nonprofits such as local symphonies can often be measured in audience attendance. The more people filling seats at a performance, or the more people visiting a gallery, the more successful that organization obviously is. Those who take a more simplistic view of philanthropy would expect that the symphonies with the greatest attendance get the most donations. But a recent study published in Public Performance and Management Review has found that this isn’t always true.

The researchers found that arts nonprofits that play by the rules and succeed according to philanthropic standards are not always rewarded with more donations. In fact, these seemingly successful organizations sometimes receive fewer donations, perhaps because people believe they don’t need the help. Success can, therefore, backfire for some organizations.

However, just because some donors are less inclined to give to a symphony which always plays to a packed house doesn’t mean they won’t donate that money elsewhere. Smaller audiences can be read as a sign that the organization in question needs more help, and therefore might be more deserving of donations.

Philanthropy has become smarter and more intricate in recent years, for both organizations and donors. This research helps to illustrate that donors are not a monolithic entity, and cannot be ascribed simplistic motivations or characterizations.

Savvy donors put more thought into how, and to whom, they donate, but even donors who don’t do research have more going through their minds than just how successful an organization seems.


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