This post was originally published here (Urban Wire)
If you’ve seen a bunch of people walking around with red noses recently, chances are, it’s not because there’s a clown convention nearby (unless you live near here). They are more likely honoring Red Nose Day (RND), a global fundraising event taking place today in the United States.
Launched in the United Kingdom in 1988 by the charity Comic Relief, RND encourages people to get together to do something silly to raise money and awareness for the fight against child poverty. Since then, the biennial event, which features a celebrity-packed telethon, has raised more than £1 billion and has installed itself at the heart of British charitable culture.
In 2015, Red Nose Day launched in the United States with a televised event headlined by Jack Black. The campaign raised $21 million, a significant sum, but well short of the $122 million that RND raised in the United Kingdom that year.
The following year, US Red Nose Day brought in $31.5 million. We’ll soon see if that growth continues, but we shouldn’t judge RND based on dollars alone. Its long-term success hinges on several factors pointing to key, broader dynamics within the charitable sector.
’Tis the season?
Charitable giving is not distributed uniformly throughout the calendar. We tend to give—and give more—as the year closes.
The seasonal imbalance is especially pronounced with digital giving. According to the Network for Good Digital Giving Index, nearly a third of all online giving occurs in December, and 11 percent in the last three days of the year.
There are obvious reasons for this concentration, including holiday spirit and end-of-the-year tax planning considerations. But from a managerial perspective, it’s better for nonprofits to receive charitable donations more evenly throughout the year.
Evidence shows that #GivingTuesday (held since 2012 on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) helped draw some giving from December to November, and recently, several localities, such as Alexandria, Virginia, and Silicon Valley, have held spring giving days, claiming relatively uncrowded calendar territory.
Red Nose Day is clearly hoping to do the same on a national level, and in the process, is testing the elasticity of America’s seasonal charitable biases.
The macro power of micro-philanthropy
Red Nose Day supporters can purchase red clown noses at Walgreens and Duane Reade for a dollar, with half the proceeds going to the Red Nose Day Fund. This type of charitable giving—“point of sale” donations—has brought in more than $3.88 billion over the last three decades.
Such purchases are an excellent example of “micro-philanthropy,” small donations made by a wide class of potential givers. As one of its most high-profile exercises, RND presents an opportunity to explore the benefits and drawbacks.
As Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign appreciated with regard to political donations, small gifts, when combined, can result in a large sum. The charitable model also has precedents in the mass campaigns of the early 20th century to promote medical research, such as the March of Dimes.
But micro-philanthropy runs against the grain of a key fundraising trend—the increased reliance of nonprofit institutions, such as colleges and universities, on a small number of large donations for their charitable revenue. It can be understood as a reaction against such inequities within the charitable sector, suggesting an intrinsic value to citizens engaging in philanthropy and expressing themselves through their charitable choices.
Achieving wide-scale engagement is the goal, though this raises the question of the proper threshold for participation. How “micro” can we get without cheapening charitable action? Does a Facebook click count?
More instrumentally, micro-philanthropy also promotes the small donation as a means of raising awareness for a cause and of investing in individuals’ long-term charitable identities and inclinations. Millennials, who now represent approximately 11 percent of total charitable giving, are an especially attractive target for this approach.
The small initial “buy-in” allows RND organizers to cast a wide net, though donor retention remains a challenge. According to a recent survey, only 45 percent of donors who gave in 2015 gave to the same organization in 2016. Whether RND can retain its givers, and whether they will increase their giving over time, bears watching closely in the years to come.