Engagement: All the Rage—Philanthropy Amid Crisis
Above Photo Credit: Guillaume Issaly
“Rage giving” is here to stay, and you should be prepared for when—not if—it happens to your nonprofit.
The summer of 2020 saw a wave of protests in U.S. cities in response to the unjust deaths of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Elijah McClain. Thousands of protesters took to the streets, while others took out their wallets. According to The New York Times, racial justice groups, bail funds and Black-led advocacy organizations saw a record-setting surge of donations, leaving them overwhelmed and flush with cash.
This type of charitable giving has been called “rage philanthropy” or “rage giving,” and it puts nonprofit professionals at the intersection of public dissent and private support.
It can be a weird place to be. Numerous studies show that charitable giving makes us happier, healthier and more social, and we feel more connected to each other when we give. So, what happens when charitable giving, which is supposed to be joyful, or at the very least, unassuming, is paired with an emotion like anger?
Ten days after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the term “rage philanthropy” was used by news articles about the now-defunct website Rage Donate. The site paired incendiary quotes from then-president-elect Donald Trump with a suggested donation button to nonprofit organizations working with people who were the target of those quotes (women, Muslims, immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, and other groups).
Since then, “rage giving” has been an outlet to express one’s self and affect social change, and nonprofits of all sizes and causes are grappling with this growing donor-initiated phenomenon. As researchers, we wanted to explore how philanthropy as a form of protest affected nonprofit organizations. Between October 2018 and October 2019, the University of Colorado Boulder and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy conducted semi-structured interviews with 20 employees at 17 nonprofit organizations. Across their unique experiences with rage giving, we found four common characteristics:
- A divisive “moment,” usually political or polarizing
- Extensive media coverage about the moment, including traditional media, such as TV news and newspapers, and user-generated media posts, including images and video on social media
- A sudden, unexpected and unsolicited increase in donations and/or number of donors
- A strong emotional response by donors
Sound familiar? Before 2016, episodes of spontaneous giving by individuals were called “reactive giving” or “crisis” or “responsive philanthropy,” like after the events 9/11 or the 2004 Asian tsunami. Yet, the nonprofit professionals we interviewed say today’s giving surges are different. They have a new ferocity in their scope, scale and speed, and it is donors who are leading the charge.
While rage giving has its obvious benefits for nonprofits—money for the organization and attention for the cause—it comes with challenges, too.
- It’s disruptive. Some worried how spending the money on technology or hiring more employees would affect their rating on third-party sites like Charity Navigator and GuideStar, which donors may use to decide where to donate. Some informants shared that their organizations were re-examining or questioning their mission in the wake of a rage giving event.
- It’s unreliable and unsustainable. These spikes in funding seem to last mere days to a few weeks. Some informants noted that donors sometimes assumed the excess donations must have “solved the issue,” therefore, nonprofits no longer needed help. This makes it challenging to manage expectations with loyal donors, volunteers and board members who might expect giving surges to be the new normal.
- It’s bad to get angry and donate. Philanthropy is usually seen as an act of altruism and good citizenship. Some informants worried that rage philanthropy had weaponized the act of donating.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some nonprofit professionals we interviewed called the giving surge to their organization “a gamechanger” and “a silver lining.” They also said:
- It’s empowering. Donating is an act “nearly everyone can make,” said one informant. Donors told organizations that giving alleviated feelings of anger and helplessness after upsetting news events.
- It builds a lifelong habit. One informant said they used “the moment” to convert new donors to give monthly instead of just once. Even if new donors never gave to their nonprofit again, some informants felt a rage donation was the start of a habit of giving, which was beneficial for all nonprofits and society.
- It’s good to get angry and donate. Some informants said rage giving indicated that people were moved from complacency to action.
Rage philanthropy has significant implications on nonprofit organizations’ daily work and, for some in our study, led to philosophical questions about their organization’s identity and purpose. As one informant told us: “I definitely think rage philanthropy was something that greatly impacted our organization in a lot of different ways, not just financially.”
The majority of the nonprofit professionals we interviewed didn’t anticipate their rage giving event or know how donors found their organization. Here’s what they shared that they did (or wished they did) in the aftermath of rage philanthropy:
- Media training. Informants experienced more interview requests from journalists during and after their rage philanthropy event—sometimes the giving surge itself becomes the news. Learn how to write editorials, press releases and letters to the editor to inform the public about your organization. Create talking points for your nonprofit leadership to use in media interviews.
- Donor education. Rage donors may be new to the act of giving. Provide an FAQ about your organization. Show them the impact of their donations at your events and in impact reports. Create advocacy roles to help them understand the mission beyond the moment.
- AB testing. If you’re curious (and can afford to do so), experiment with your solicitation messaging. Informants were divided over what reaches donors moved by news events—a more activist-based message or a more community-based message. From tone to word choice to timing, learn how to AB test with email, direct mail and social media so you know what resonates with your audience (the one you have, or the one you want to have).
- Technology. Identify vulnerabilities with your website or database. Invest in cybersecurity. Improve your search engine optimization. Create an emergency plan, or add to an existing one, that addresses what to do during a giving surge. One informant had their website crash during a rage giving episode and, because they planned ahead, used volunteers to take donations over the phones.
- Partnerships. Sometimes the urge to “do something” does more harm than good, some informants said, by duplicating efforts and causing confusion. Instead, lift each other up. One informant joined a “learning circle” with nonprofit peers to tackle a shared problem together. Another informant directed rage donors to a smaller nonprofit that had more expertise.
One might argue that nonprofit professionals should consider these activities regardless, but rage giving has made it even more urgent. As 2021 brings new challenges for our society, we’ll be watching—and documenting—how rage giving impacts nonprofit organizations, donor behaviors and social change.
Melanie M. Sidwell is a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder exploring the intersection of philanthropy, activism and media. She is also a senior communications manager at the University of Colorado System.
Amy Voida, Ph.D., is a founding assistant professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. She also holds an adjunct appointment with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, IUPUI. Amy conducts empirical and design research in philanthropic informatics, exploring the role of information and communication technologies in supporting initiatives for the public good.