Individual Contributions and Volunteerism

According to Giving USA, a publication of Giving U.S.A. foundation, in 2009 individual contributions, including bequests accounted for 83% or slightly more than $251 billion of the philanthropic dollars reported in the United States. While this percentage of overall individual giving continued as it has for decades, it is likely that that total amount of individual giving may not increase in 2011. With unemployment exceeding 10% in some states, individual giving decreased. The impact which the economic downturn is having on each person's capacity and willingness to give varies considerably based on their personal circumstances. With the increase in unemployment, the emphasis on volunteerism in times of need, and the Call to Service and United We Serve initiatives by President Obama, volunteer hours from individuals are increasing substantially.

Recent survey findings include:

  • July 2008, Capital One Financial Survey (10/27/08)
    • 80% of individuals surveyed were concerned about the economy and its impact on them.
    • 50% were sure they will cut or stop giving in 2008.
    • 18% were cutting other spending to maintain charity commitments.
  • Forbes High Net Worth Survey (September 2008)
    • 73% of the respondents (up from 51% in April 2008) said the downturn has impacted their wealth significantly.
    • 51% said they will give less in 2008 than in 2007.
    • 16% said they will give more in 2008 than in 2007.
  • Civic Enterprise Report "The Quiet Crisis"
    • 52% of the nonprofits reported their funding had been cut.

Here are some further recession considerations:

Overall Impacts

  • Nationwide unemployment remains near 9 percent.
  • The values of individual stock portfolios have only recently recovered.
  • Home equity values and sales liquidity are still substantially diminished in most neighborhoods.
  • Some companies reduced their annual stock dividends.
  • Retirees depending heavily on dividends and retirement plans to supplement their social security income are cutting back on expenditures.
  • Consumer costs were relatively stable and there are more bargains.


  • Most donors give from their income, rather than their stock portfolio or housing value. Those who are still employed and donate out of their annual salary, rather than their savings, have basically the same capacity to give.
  • The economic uncertainty has motivated people to save more of their current income and delay major expenditures and donor decisions until the last minute.
  • Most people are still giving, but may not give as much and may narrow their giving to those causes they care most about. Religious organizations receive about one-third of contributions while environmental and animal related causes receive only about 2% or $6 billion.
  • An October 2008 poll pointed to an overall dip in giving. Nineteen percent of donors said they expected to give more in the months ahead, while 22% said they'd give less.
  • Some people are using their giving capacity to help triage essential community services - food, shelter, family services - most directly impacted by reduced state and local funding.
  • Certain nonprofit sectors such as arts, culture, and humanities and social services were the hardest hit. While other giving sectors such as animal rights, the environment, and education were less impacted.
  • Many baby boomers have accumulated wealth and have considerable means in spite of financial losses and are looking to make a difference in their remaining years by supporting causes they believe in and make good on the idealism of their youth.
  • Fundraising organizations are more aggressively seeking contributions in a more competitive and challenging fundraising environment.


  • President Obama's Call to Service inspired increased volunteerism and community engagement.
  • Over 8 million jobs were lost during the recession which officially began in December 2007 and lasted until June 2009. Those who have lost their jobs or who are dealing with reduced paychecks due to work hour reductions or furloughs have less capacity to give but more time to volunteer. Some are compensating for their reduced giving capacity by donating more hours in a time-money swap. They may be cash-poor, but are now time-rich. Also some underemployed want to be able to show productive volunteer work experience on their resumes and job applications to be more competitive in applying for jobs.
  • More young adults are graduating from school curriculums that require community service hours that often result in fulfilling experiences.
  • Volunteers are stepping forward in unprecedented numbers that are causing nonprofit organizations and public agencies to really stretch their organizational capacity to accommodate them. Volunteer support will likely translate into future financial contributions. Some organizations are enlisting volunteers to help manage the additional number of volunteers.

Donors will continue to give what they can to the causes they care most about. Those not currently in a position to give dollars may want to volunteer their time. It is more important than ever to understand your individual donors' situations, their capacity to give, and the degree to which your cause is a high priority for them. Then figure out ways to best engage them in contributing their money and/or time.

This is a more challenging but not impossible time to recruit new donors. As always, people receive many appeals for contributions and respond to those appeals that they care most about. The grandeur and enduring legacy of National Park units and their connections to people, places and stories resonate strongly with many people. Some parks are experiencing record visitation. The Ken Burns' The National Parks - America's Best Idea and other park featured TV specials heightened public awareness about and interest in their national parks. People will be more motivated to emulate the early supporters of national parks profiled in the series to become involved and offer their participation and support. Parks and their partners need to be position themselves to take advantage of this interest and make it easy for the public to learn through park websites, the media and in-park information how they can get involved.

Your core donors and supporters are your strongest funding prospects. Your organization's first priority should be to communicate a convincing case that your park causes are, and will continue to be, a worthy investment for their more limited giving. You want to fine tune your donor case statements and lists of giving needs and opportunities. It is important to clearly present these needs and opportunities to give and make a difference, and communicate the impact of donations on the park and its programs.

Connect, or reconnect, to core donors in the context of how much you value their continued support and how their support has and will continue to make a difference.

Personal connections will make a difference. No donation is too small during difficult times to acknowledge. A timely, personal response and quick thank-you calls, card or email from staff or volunteers will encourage and reinforce a donor's continued support with whatever means they can afford. Continue to cultivate your relationship with your donors.

If donors perceive that you are solely contacting them for money, you may experience a negative response. In this more competitive fundraising environment, timely and frequent updates and personal connections make a big difference in holding on to your donors. This may require more staff support work but volunteers can be recruited to help with donor communications.

Many donors are doing basic research on how they might support parks on-line by first accessing the websites and navigating to park and partner websites. It is crucial that park websites be inspiring and provide clear directions for giving and volunteering. Many park and partner websites need to be upgraded. Suggestions for these upgrades reformats will soon be available on this website.

Online giving has become a valuable resource for many nonprofits. Increasingly, individual donors are becoming more comfortable giving money, becoming members, and making payments online. Because online giving requires little overhead, provides a quick way to donate and is more cost-effective, its use is expected to continue to increase over the next few years. Through online giving donors can contribute to restricted and unrestricted funds. (Link to Online Fundraising.)

Some Friends Groups have noted a recent resurgence of people contributing by mailing checks. This may be a result of increased concern about computer hackers seeking to capture online financial information. Encourage donors to give whichever way they feel most comfortable.

With many under-employed people and the heightened interest in volunteering from students, recent graduates, baby boomers and seniors, a challenge is to develop park staff and partner capacity to offer rewarding volunteer opportunities. Based on national statistics, two thirds of volunteers do not stay engaged largely because they don't feel effectively utilized, respected and appreciated. Park volunteerism is the entree to cultivating a lifelong commitment to park stewardship. People who donate their time and expertise often end up as philanthropic donors because of their enhanced awareness, appreciation and commitment to parks.

In the current environment where there is more capacity to give time than money, most agencies and organizations are bending over backwards to accommodate and engage more volunteers. This is partially to take advantage of available support and partially to cultivate engagement, a sense of park stewardship, and commitments for the future when the economy eventually improves. This should be part of your strategy to grow your donor base.