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Monday, January 22, 2018

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Can Big Bird Save Philanthropy?
Penelope Burk

April, 2011

The thing about research is that sometimes you like what it uncovers and sometimes you don’t.

My company’s 2011 Cygnus Donor Survey is loaded with good news and I highlighted some of this study’s positive findings in my last blog, Brace Yourself for Happiness. By the way, I will be discussing the key findings from this robust study in a webinar next week. I’ll cover findings from 22,000 donors on where they are taking their philanthropy in 2011, how they plan to transact their gifts, and what they need from the not-for-profits they support. If you want to feel good about the future while picking up some very practical advice from donors, please join me on Tuesday, May 3rd (American results) or Wednesday, May 4th (Canadian findings).

But, I want to draw your attention to something I have written about before — specifically, the relationship between religious conviction and philanthropy. Donors who are actively religious give considerably more to charitable causes than do donors who refer to themselves as “not at all religious” or “somewhere in between”.  Actively religious donors are highly productive in many ways. Not only do they give more, but they are more likely to maintain or increase their giving in an unstable economy, and more likely to volunteer and do so at a leadership level. And, their commitment to giving is not limited to supporting their own religious institutions; actively religious donors give generously in every direction — to education, healthcare, social services and the arts.

The problem is, though, that religious conviction is declining with every succeeding generation, making your jobs as fundraisers and not-for-profit CEOs even tougher. For the last two years, I have been posing this question in speaking engagements and seminars — “As the positive influence that religion exerts on philanthropy wanes, what is waiting in the wings to take over?”

Big Bird, it seems — or, more accurately, Sesame Street. This wonderful institution that has given so much to generations of preschoolers has decided that it’s never too early to learn how to manage money. Besides being completely right about that, the way they have developed their approach to financial literacy for the very young is nothing short of brilliant. On a theme of  “spend / save / share”, Sesame Street is teaching children that any amount of money, no matter how modest, can be divided three ways – some for buying the things you need or want now, some for saving for even bigger things and for future security, and some for giving to others.

My immediate reaction was, “Great, but surely Sesame Street can’t do this enormous job alone.” Then I did what a researcher always does and looked at the stats. While the percentage of donors under the age of 35 who are actively religious is now in the low 20’s, the percentage of preschoolers who watch TV is a solid 75%.

Fundraisers should adopt this theme song:

Sunny day…sweeping those clouds away….on my way to where the air is sweet…can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street.


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