How to Handle the Holiday Donation Deluge
By Nancy Trish Calderon
No matter how they reach you this holiday season—by text, email, phone, in person or through the U.S. mail—charities, non-profits, crowdfunders and more are hoping their end-of-year fundraising appeals will resonate, and encourage you to share financial good cheer.
They have reason to be optimistic: Despite soaring inflation rates, Americans gave a near-record $485 billion to charity in 2021. A recent study suggests nearly six in 10 donors may give even more this year. And it makes sense: Research not only shows that donating to others makes people feel good, it’s also good for your health.
But how to survive the December deluge and navigate the annual flood of holiday-giving requests? We went straight to Nancy Trish Calderon, Santa Clara University’s longtime senior associate vice president for principal gifts and development, to help steer us in the right direction.
We all get so many emails and flyers and mailers this time of year asking us to donate. What do you make of the end of year rush for solicitations?
There’s often too much noise so a lot of it ends up in the trash. I think people look only at those solicitations that inspire them, or organizations to which they’re connected.
Good fundraisers know how to probe for interests and passions. They then make the connection to something in their organizations that the prospect cares about. They build the case for the impact the gift will make and then continue to reinforce those impacts over time so that the donor makes follow-on—and hopefully bigger—gifts.
What should someone be looking for in an organization before they give? What are some potential red flags?
Understanding how donations are used before donating: Do they support organizational costs? That’s a red flag. If only part of the donation serves the intended designation, that’s a red flag. If the donor isn’t thanked. If the impact is not communicated. If the institution is not making progress towards its stated mission and goals. All of these are red flags to me. If an organization is being transparent, you should be able to Google this information on their website. If you drill down and find out that only a small percentage of every dollar that’s raised goes to the philanthropic effort, and a lot of it is going to overhead, that’s a problem.
Some charities try to encourage donations by sending people unsolicited gifts such as calendars, notepads, or return address stickers. What do you think of that tactic?
I have the opposite reaction to that, and I’ll tell you why: It can make donors think their philanthropic dollars are being spent on those items, and not for the purposes that the charity has identified.
Do you give during the holidays? How do you assess the right way to do so?
I give all year long. I give to Santa Clara, of course, and I give to a number of cancer entities because I’ve lost two siblings to cancer; I also give to Martha’s Kitchen, which is a local food bank in San Jose. I give to certain charities that clearly and efficiently communicate the impact of their fundraising; that makes a big difference. I got an email from one this morning that I thought was terrific. It’s a charity called Know the Glow, and it works to eliminate preventable childhood blindness. The mother who started it has a son who is at Santa Clara. She does exactly what I think the most successful charities do: she shows the impact, and lists their 2022 accomplishments on the website.
At Santa Clara, what motivates donors to give around the holidays?
The holidays are a motivator for some donors. The holidays tend to bring about the charitable side of people. People oftentimes think not just about being fiscally responsible, but socially responsible. They think about people who are not doing well and how they might make a contribution that would have an impact on those people.
The Salvation Army and food banks and homeless shelters, for example, those kinds of social entities really see the vast majority of their giving at this time of year, starting around Thanksgiving, when you recognize that people don’t have enough to eat, people don’t have a place to lay their heads, and it becomes much more amplified at this time of the year.
Another thing that can’t be underplayed is the tax ramifications. They may have had an intention to make a gift, and the year slips away from them and they realize, “Oh, gosh, it’s already December, I’d better make that gift.” We try to make it easy for donors to make gifts all year round through multiple avenues (website, social, direct mail, face-to-face solicitations, acceptance of cash, and transfer of stocks and real property).
You mentioned the act of thanking as an important part of the giving process. Why is that important?
A donor remembers how they feel when they make a gift. The result of that gift either brings them some joy because they know it was meaningful, or they don’t get the appropriate response and they say, “You know, I’m never making a donation to that organization again.” There’s a woman by the name of Penelope Burk, and she’s spent her entire career talking about “giving starts with thanks.” She says you cannot thank people too much, and it needs to be more than perfunctory. It really needs to demonstrate the impact of their gift.
You’ve been in fund raising for nearly 20 years. What have you learned that you didn’t know back when you started at Santa Clara?
That this is all about relationships and understanding people. What matters is what the prospective donor cares about. It’s about matching their philanthropic passion to the work that you are doing. Santa Clara University’s mission opens many doors to that.
For more information on holiday philanthropy, check out the Markkula Center's Ethical Giving Guide.